'National Treasure' has little of value

Reeling It In

Posted: Thursday, January 03, 2008


  This undated photo released by Disney shows actors Diane Kruger (left,) Justin Bartha and Nicolas Cage in a scene from "National Treasure: Book of Secrets." ROBERT ZUCKERMAN

This undated photo released by Disney shows actors Diane Kruger (left,) Justin Bartha and Nicolas Cage in a scene from "National Treasure: Book of Secrets."


When the original "National Treasure" film came out a couple of years ago, I remember being incensed that it was essentially trying to pull the rug out from under "The Da Vinci Code," releasing an American version of the story before the real one made it to the big screen. This criticism was totally valid, but since "Da Vinci" didn't end up being much to write home about, the point is moot. "National Treasure," on the other hand, was a huge success and spawned an inevitable sequel, this time drawing on the titular "Book of Secrets" to flesh out the action.

Does it work? Though the box office receipts disagree, I'm sorry to say, not at all.

Full disclosure: I hated "National Treasure." It wasn't just the "Da Vinci" complaint, either. The whole thing, to me, felt like American History-lite, and Nicholas Cage a low-rent Indiana Jones. Because the movie employed such fabulous conspiracies dealing with such well-documented men as our own founding fathers, I just couldn't suspend my disbelief. "Book of Secrets," at least in one way, is an improvement over its predecessor in that it picks slightly more obscure history to distort, i.e., the Lincoln assassination. Cage returns as Archie Gates, treasure hunter and history professor who, on the eve of the honoring of his great-great grandfather as a Civil War hero, is shocked to find that there is evidence linking his ancestor to the murder of one of this country's greatest leaders.

Naturally this can't be true, so Gates, his father (played by Jon Voight a low-rent Sean Connery if I've ever seen one), and their trusty crew of misfits embark on a grand adventure to set the record straight and maybe, just maybe, find one of the greatest hidden treasures the world has ever known.

Just reading back on that, it actually sounds pretty cool. So why isn't it? Either it's because I'm a crank who doesn't know how to have fun, or it's because the writing, acting, and directing are completely lame. Everything is just so quippy. You can just tell that the writers are so pleased with themselves with every line of smugly winking dialogue. The acting, despite the pedigree of the stars involved Oscar winners Cage, Voight, and recent winner Helen Mirren is broadcast so obviously that at times you feel like you're watching a junior high stage version of the story.

Mostly it's the supporting players, but Voight in particular seems to be doing some sort of a caricature as the elder Gates. Mirren does a fine job, but she's completely wasted in the role. Cage alone seems to understand that the movie he's in is as silly as they come, and really appears to be goofing off rather than seriously acting.

The direction of the specific sequences, mostly action, is fine, but it's really the larger choices that the director either made or approved of that I disagree with. Cage and crew break into Buckingham Palace, the White House, and even kidnap the President of the United States with no more trouble than a couple of middle school miscreants might nick a candy bar from the corner grocery. I'm all for high times and wild adventure, but I should at least be able to believe it, even a little. The "Indiana Jones" films, escapist fantasy though they are, at least give you some ground to hold on to. "National Treasure" assumes that you're going to be having so much fun that you won't care if it's believable or not. They assume wrong.

I realize that many people will disagree with me on this review. This movie is making huge profits at movie theatres around the country and audiences seem to be genuinely enjoying it. I ran into a friend and her family in the lobby as I was leaving and, in the wake of her enthusiasm, I felt like Ebenezer Scrooge pooh-poohing his nephew's love of Christmas.

So why can't I just quit being a spoil-sport and get behind this fun-loving rollicking adventure? Because it's dumb, and if we support facile, simplistic stories with no attempt at accuracy or cleverness, then those are the kind of movies we'll end up with. This is pretty much the same problem that I have with the last two "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, and with a whole host of other blockbusters that are paraded out every year. I'm not such a cineaste that I don't appreciate a good superhero or monster movie I just ask that it make some kind of sense, and that the writers at least try.

But then again, when it's so easy to make hundreds of millions of dollars without actually putting out quality, I don't know what I expect. Why go the extra mile if you don't have to? Why make art when you can get so much more out of a "Treasure?"

Grade: D

"National Treasure: Book of Secrets" is rated PG for mild language and scares.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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