National Treasure: Book of Secrets

Reviewed by Nathaniel Bell

National Treasure: Book of Secrets, the second in a potential trilogy of globetrotting treasure hunts, comes with as much swagger as its 2004 predecessor, but not quite as much fun. With eleven locations in three countries and a plot that outstrips itself in sheer lunacy, this magical history tour pulls all the stops.

Things get off to a brisk start as Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) sets out to clear his family name after a missing page from John Wilkes Boothes diary implicates his great-great grandfather in the assassination of President Lincoln. Called back into action are tech-whiz Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), archivist and estranged girlfriend Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger, previously Helen of Troy and still looking the part), and petulant father Patrick Gates (Jon Voight). With the help of his brainy and eminently capable cohorts, Ben leapfrogs from one clue to the next in a quest that brings him ever closer to a mythic lost city of gold, sought by the Confederate army during the Civil War.

Ed Harris, Helen Mirren, and Harvey Keitel, three of the most galvanic actors in the business, are forced to conform to the most banal supporting roles of their respective careers. Harris plays a rival treasure seeker with an axe to grind, and he gets the films juiciest final bow. Mirren, as Bens mother and Patricks ex-wife, is mostly stuck playing second banana to the Gates boys. Keitel, repeating his role as a Masonic FBI agent in the first National Treasure, is barely an afterthought.

Taken together or figured separately, the National Treasure movies dont threaten to unseat Raiders of the Lost Ark as the reigning champions of action pastiches. (A third installment is rumored to appear next summer, which will also see the release of a new chapter of “Indiana Jones”). But they do represent a sporting attempt to make American history sexy again.

The film is filled to bursting with ciphers, treasure maps, secret passageways, trap doors, and other gadgetry designed to excite studious high school students and inspire lust for obsolete bric-a-brac. (One of the characters bribes another with two of the surviving Boston tea tables.) This is the kind of film where people put on glasses just so they can melodramatically take them off before uttering a grave declaration. Its all quite vacuous, but its still more entertaining than The Da Vinci Code.

The plot hurtles forward from one locale to the next, but the effect is more exhausting than exhilarating. Were never given a chance to pause, catch our breath, and anticipate whats coming. And the recurring scenes of riddle-solving and code-cracking arent suspenseful because every problem is resolved without a hint of difficulty. (Apparently, Ben, in addition to being a culturally literate fortune-hunter, is an infallible interpreter of obscure runic symbols.) Screenwriters Cormac and Marianne Wibberly (billed simply as The Wibberlys) mistake movement for progress and spike each scene with tedious historical extracts.

Jon Turteltaub may be the man in the directors chair, but the real force at work here, the genuine auteur, is producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who exerts his steely grip on every aspect of the production. Even the editing rhythms, which shamelessly pander to the attention-deprived, seem weirdly subservient to the Bruckheimer aesthetic. A mere car chase isnt enough for this kind of epicthe cars must dodge exploding beer kegs. The mandatory two-hour running time and $100,000,000 budget are both business as usual.

Perhaps whats most appealing about this outsized attempt to empty the wallets of vacationing moviegoers is its adamant, if superficial, interest in family ties, family history, and family honor. One doesnt have to pay close attention to notice the ridiculous lengths to which Ben and Patrick go to exonerate their besmirched ancestors.

The films sincerest moment is a quiet passage between Ben and the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood). Partitioned off in a tunnel beneath Mt. Vernon, they come to a mutual understanding about the importance of ancestral heritage. Arrestingly acted and striking in its candid depiction of traditional values, this scene is emblematic of National Treasures hidden conservative heart.

In a film that thrives on extravagant action set pieces, including pit stops at Buckingham Palace, the Oval Office, and Mt. Rushmore, only one succeeds in stoking the imaginationan ingeniously crafted cliffhanger in which the remaining characters must balance themselves on a teetering stone slab overlooking a gorge. The bottom of the gorge, it almost goes without saying, is littered with the rotting bones of previous victims. Its the films grand centerpiece, and it works.

Though the overall impact is feeble, theres something genuinely charming about the films antiquarian priorities. A passing interest in American history is better than no interest at all. Buried beneath the bombast is a brazenly patriotic salute to a nations legacy.

End Note

The first “National Treasure” was a wild success, grossing close to $350 million worldwide.

Cast

Ben Gates – Nicolas Cage
Patrick Gates – Jon Voight
Sadusky – Harvey Keitel
Mitch Wilkinson – Ed Harris
Abigail Chase – Diane Kruger
Riley Poole – Justin Bartha
The President – Bruce Greenwood
Daniel – Michael Maize
Seth – Timothy Murphy
FBI Agent Spellman – Alicia Coppola
FBI Agent Hendricks – Armando Riesco
Dr. Nichols – Albert Hall
Emily Appleton – Helen Mirren

Credits

A Walt Disney Pictures release presented with Jerry Bruckheimer Films of a Junction Entertainment production in association with Saturn Films.
Produced by Bruckheimer, Jon Turteltaub. Executive producers, Mike Stenson, Chad Oman, Barry Waldman, Oren Aviv, Charles Segars. Directed by Jon Turteltaub.
Screenplay, the Wibberleys; story, Gregory Poirier, the Wibberleys, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, based on characters created by Jim Kouf, Oren Aviv, Charles Segars.
Camera: John Schwartzman, Amir Mokri.
Editors: William Goldenberg, David Rennie.
Music: Trevor Rabin; music supervisor, Bob Badami.
Production designer: Dominic Watkins.
Supervising art director, Drew Boughton.
Art directors: Julian W. Ashby, A. Todd Holland.
Set decorator: Fainche MacCarthy.
Costume designer: Judianna Makovsky.
Sound: Peter J. Devlin; supervising sound editor, George Watters II.
Senior visual effects supervisor, Nathan McGuinness; visual effects supervisor, Mitchell S. Drain; visual effects, Asylum Visual Effects; additional visual effects, Industrial Light & Magic.

MPAA Rating: PG.
Running time: 123 Minutes