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Friday, March 29, 2013

National Treasure

Nicolas Cage has run the gamut of the action film genre. He’s played the reluctant action hero in The Rock (1996), a cartoonish icon in Con Air (1997) and the amoral bad guy in Face/Off (1997). With National Treasure (2004) he added another variation to his repertoire — the non-violent problem solver – one of several pleasant surprises in this movie. Usually, you don’t see this kind of a protagonist in a Jerry Bruckheimer action movie. In the 1980s and 1990s, he was known for cranking out R-rated fare like Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and Bad Boys (1995). With Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), the busy producer began moving towards more family-friendly projects.

I’m a sucker for action/adventure movies with Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) being my gateway drug. I just love seeing an action hero making his way through dangerous, exotic locales looking for some wealthy bit of treasure. Raiders spawned countless imitators, but nobody has been able to top what Steven Spielberg and George Lucas did with that film. Some have come close and I would argue that National Treasure comes pretty close. Unfairly trashed by critics as a Da Vinci Code rip-off (the book, not the film), it nevertheless connected with mainstream audiences, scoring decent enough sized numbers at the box office that a sequel was made three years later.

As a child, Benjamin Franklin Gates was told a story by his grandfather (Christopher Plummer) about an ancient valuable treasure brought over to North America by the Freemasons during the discovery of the New World. Over the years, the location of the vast treasure was moved around and ultimately lost as the people who knew it eventually died off. Now, only a few clues exist but they aren’t easy to find and decipher. Ben’s cynical father Patrick (Jon Voight) scoffs at this story, not wanting to see his son follow in his family’s footsteps. However, he grows up to be a world-class treasure hunter (Nicolas Cage) and has never forgotten his grandfather’s story. It has become a life-long obsession, handed down from generation to generation.

The trail of clues leads to a secret map hidden somewhere on the Declaration of Independence, but how can he gain access to it? His partner, Ian (Sean Bean), decides that the only way is to steal it, which goes against Gates’ code of honor. They part company on less than amicable terms — Ian tries to blow him up. Gates’ quest takes him to such diverse places as Washington, D.C., the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and Trinity Church in New York City. To help him achieve his goal, Gates enlists the help of Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) or rather he tries to con her so that they can look at the Declaration before Ian steals it. However, his story is more than a little far-fetched so, he decides to steal it in order to protect it with the help of his trusty sidekick (and comic relief) Riley Poole (Justin Bartha). In the ensuing chaos, Dr. Chase is caught in the middle and shanghaied by Gates and Riley. If that wasn’t bad enough, a determined FBI agent by the name of Sadusky (Harvey Keitel) is on their trail. Now, Gates has to stay one step ahead of the law and Ian.

National Treasure differentiates between the good guys and the bad guys in the methods that they employ. Ian and his men carry guns and use physical force to get what they want while Gates uses his brains, skills and high-tech gadgets to achieve his goals. For example, he figures out one clue using a tobacco pipe found hidden in a ship buried under snow and ice at the Arctic Circle. It is a refreshing idea for an action/adventure movie in a genre that is often saturated with excessive gunplay. It is also nice to see an action movie propelled by a story and not a series of action sequences. There is a lot of problem-solving instead of relying on mindless action. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have its share of exciting sequences because it does, but it doesn’t overcompensate. For example, Gates has the physical prowess to escape the aforementioned ship when Ian betrays him by blowing it up. There is a balance. Characters don’t always resort to violence. In this cat and mouse game, they have to use their wits if they are going to be successful.

At times, National Treasure wants to be a contemporary update of the Indiana Jones films. Like that character, Benjamin Gates isn’t in it for the money, but for a genuine love of history and the thrill of solving a centuries-old mystery. There is a surprisingly entertaining mix of action and humor. It doesn’t rely on too many clichés of the genre and tries not to insult one’s intelligence. Nicolas Cage does a good job of conveying Gates’ passion for uncovering and protecting rare historical artifacts. He’s not merely a man of action, but a passionate student of history who gets wistful over a key line from the Declaration of Independence. This is Cage is in restrained mode as he keeps his esoteric acting flourishes to a minimum.

Justin Bartha is hacker extraordinaire, Riley Poole and he plays well off of Cage, providing comic relief with the occasional well-timed one-liner, but he wisely doesn’t act too goofy. Christopher Plummer, as always, is excellent in a small role, utilizing his theatrical training to captivate the young Gates (and us) with his story about the Freemasons’ treasure. Plummer knows when to put just the right amount of dramatic spin on a key word or phrase. He is able to take what could have been dry, exposition dialogue and make it interesting. Sean Bean plays yet another bad buy, but a very smart one despite always being one step behind Gates. He is the Belloq to Gates’ Indy, commanding vast resources, but he wants the treasure for all the wrong reasons. Jon Voight is just fine as Gates’ cantankerous father who disapproves of what he sees as his son’s foolish quest for a treasure that probably doesn’t exist.

Director Jon Turteltaub orchestrates several exciting action sequences, including car and rooftop chases, a treacherous journey into a subterranean crypt and the theft of the Declaration of Independence as an exciting heist sequence with an elegant black tie gala as the backdrop (recalling the opening sequence in the first Mission: Impossible film). It is a tense affair even though we know how it’s all going to turn out.

In 1998, Disney marketing executive Oren Aviv and his friend Charles Segars came up with the idea for a movie about a man forced to steal the Declaration of Independence in order to keep it out of the hands of men convinced that it contained a secret treasure map. They developed it with screenwriter Jim Kouf and brought it to director Jon Turteltaub and his producing partner Christina Steinberg. In 2001, Jerry Bruckheimer agreed to produce it. He had wanted to work with Turteltaub for years. Kouf spent 9-10 months researching the Declaration of Independence and the legends that surround it.

Several drafts and writers into the process, Cormac and Marianne Wibberley were brought in to think up a treasure for the characters to pursue. After doing some research, they developed a connection between the Freemasons, who were already referenced in the script, and the mythical Knights Templar. After the Wibberleys worked on the script, it went through even more hands, including Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who were brought in by Bruckheimer after their successful work on the first Pirates of the Caribbean film.

National Treasure received a critical hammering from reviewers. Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and felt that it was “so silly that the Monty Python version could use the same screenplay, line for line.” USA Today gave it one-and-a-half out of four stars and Mike Clark wrote, “The most you can say about this boo-boo is to note its fitting mix of flaccid execution and stupefying premise. Is this really the time in history moviegoers want to see the purloined Declaration tossed around and nearly run over by cars as if it were a receipt from Taco Bell?” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “If National Treasure mattered at all, you might call it a national disgrace, but this piece of flotsam is so inconsequential that it amounts to little more than a piece of Hollywood accounting.”

Entertainment Weekly gave it a “C” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “What is only revealed in time, as the movie plays out its exceedingly busy but uninvolving twists, is that the character of a scruffy computer nerd, played with might-as-well-enjoy-myself charm by little-known actor Justin Bartha, steals the picture from glossier players.” In her review for the Los Angeles Times, Carina Chocano wrote, “National Treasure seems part of Disney's new strategy to produce what reporters love to call ‘edgier family fare’ (i.e., movies that parents and kids whose teeth have grown in might enjoy together) so National Treasure is as doggedly hokey and ham-handed as a Disneyland ride – specifically that Indiana Jones one where the ball comes rolling at you on tracks.” The Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter wrote, “National Treasure does lose its way toward the end, where the climax seems to take place in either the leftover set from The Goonies or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Note to Hollywood: Huge underground wooden structures aren't that interesting anymore.”

Regardless of critical opinion at the time, I found the first National Treasure movie something of a pleasant surprise – an inoffensive action/adventure romp for the entire family that proved to be a bonafide box office hit. It also gave Cage a much-needed boost after a string of lackluster films. To be honest, he did little of merit since so it makes sense that he would sign on for a sequel. Sure enough, National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007) was a commercial success thus ensuring a cushy paycheck for Cage to last a few more films.

When Benjamin Gates learns that his great-grandfather may have masterminded the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, he and his father decide to clear their ancestor’s name. To add insult to injury, his girlfriend, Abigail Chase, has kicked him out of their house and he’s now living with his dad. So, Ben enlists the help of Riley Poole to decipher a hidden code on John Wilkes Booth’s long lost diary page. The code hints at a treasure map located on one of the Statue of Liberties in existence.

Meanwhile, the Feds, led by Agent Sadusky, the same one who went after Ben in the first movie, investigate Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris), the source of the diary page. It turns out that he’s a black marketer who is also interested in the map because it will lead to the Lost City of Gold. The scope of Book of Secrets is much larger as Ben and company follows a trail of clues that takes them to Paris, London (where they break into Buckingham Palace), and Mount Rushmore. Also thrown into the mix is Ben’s mother (Helen Mirren) who helps her son decode an important clue and rekindle the romance with her estranged husband.

The cast acquits themselves just fine, playing their parts like consummate pros so that it doesn’t seem like they’re phoning it in, which is certainly the temptation for a movie like this one. To their credit, the cast looks like they are actually having fun traversing the globe looking for long lost treasure. As with the first movie, there is a good mix of American history, action and problem solving as it chugs along like the efficient Jerry Bruckheimer production that it is, complete with anonymous, workman-like direction from Jon Turteltaub. It is the kind of family entertainment that has something for pretty much everyone even if it comes across as Indiana Jones-lite. Still, it’s a pleasant enough time waster – one that you’ll probably forget soon after the credits end.

The first National Treasure movie is a throwback to an old school style of action/adventure movie fused with a treasure hunting caper story that owes more to Indiana Jones than Jason Bourne. Gates isn’t just trying to recover the treasure. He wants to restore his family’s name, which has been tarnished because of their belief in a treasure that no one thinks exists. So, there is a redemptive element that is an added bonus. If anything, National Treasure is saddled with a needlessly convoluted series of puzzles that our heroes must solve in order to uncover the treasure, but I never felt lost or didn't know what was going on, thanks in large part to the cast, in particular Cage and Bartha who sold it very well and kept things moving. This is out flat-out entertaining and engaging popcorn movie that should appeal to history buffs and action fans alike.


Bowles, Scott. "Bruckheimer Digs National Treasure." USA Today. February 6, 2004.

Koch, Neal. "Disney Rethinks a Staple: Family Films but Decidedly Not Rated G." The New York Times. October 19, 2004.

National Treasure Production Notes. 2004.

Olsen, Mark. "Writing Partners Get Their Days in the Sun." Los Angeles Times. November 14, 2004.


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