Director : Jon Turtletaub
Screenplay : Jim Kouf, Cormac Wibberley, and Marianne Wibberley
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Nicolas Cage (Ben Gates), Diane Kruger (Abigail Chase), Justin Bartha (Riley Poole), Sean Bean (Ian Howe), Jon Voight (Patrick Gates), Harvey Keitel (Sadusky), Christopher Plummer (John Adams Gates)
The fact that National Treasure, a passably enjoyable adventure romp, becomes steadily more ludicrous as it goes on is actually part of its ill-gotten pleasure, because if you can get through the first couple of unbelievable plot twists and puzzle decipherings, then everything afterwards is just icing on a very slick cake.
National Treasure is another product of the partnership of Walt Disney and uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, but it doesn't have the edginess or wit of Pirates of the Carribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), their previous collaboration. Rather, it is form-fitting, overstylized, family entertainment, with just enough violence to pass it off as exciting, but not so much that it breaches a PG-rating.
Nicolas Cage stars as Benjamin Franklin Gates, the sixth-generation son of a family who has spent 170 years and the entire family fortune tracking down a fabled treasure supposedly brought back from the Middle East by the Knights Templar during the Crusades. It has since been protected by the Freemasons, who count a number of the Founding Fathers among their ranks. Apparently, when they weren't debating Enlightenment ideals about natural rights and democratic government, the Founding Fathers were busy stashing clues all over the country that lead to the treasure's secret location-if it really exists, that is.
Thus, the film is an extended chase that takes place over two days, with Gates frantically moving from one clue to the next, always trying to stay a step ahead of competing treasure hunter Ian Howe (Sean Bean), who has no qualms about employing violence to get what he wants. Gates, on the other hand, is more MacGyver than Indiana Jones, always squeaking out of bad situations and staying one step ahead of the bad guys without ever having to pick up a gun. In a sense, it's refreshing to see an action movie in which the hero survives and conquers by using his brain, but the problem is that National Treasure is so busy rushing through its crowded story arc that it has little time to indulge in Gates' brilliance.
Screenwriters Jim Kouf, Cormac Wibberley, and Marianne Wibberley borrow the classic Hitchcock double-plot structure, in which the hero is simultaneously running from bad guys and the police while trying to achieve a goal (usually to clear his name). In National Treasure, this is given a slight twist in that Gates is guilty of what the police are after him for, namely stealing the Declaration of Independence from the National Archives. Of course, we know he had to do it, not only because there's an invisible treasure map on the back, but also because he has to keep it out of Ian's hands. The sequence in which Gates lifts the document during a black-tie gala is the film's giddy-fun highlight, and it's pretty much downhill after that.
Cage makes for a pleasant, if somewhat bland hero. The same goes for Diane Kruger (Troy's Helen), a hottie archivist who gets caught up in Gates' quest and becomes his partner. Not surprisingly, there is a strained attempt at romance between them, which is evinced in the film's one kiss, which is so sudden and awkwardly inserted that it draws more attention to the film's rigorous adherence to formula than it does to any sense of chemistry between the leads. Even Jon Voight doesn't seem to have much to do as Gates' father, who has become bitter and cynical at what he sees as his family's wasting of time and resources in pursuit of what may be a myth. He ends up tagging along after Ian kidnaps him, but his only purpose in the story at that point is to be proven wrong so that he and his son can bond over their family's finally achieving its goal (the irony that the Gates family has spent nearly two centuries tracking down clues and all of the big ones are found and deciphered over a 48-hour period is not entirely lost).
Perhaps because of the rather bland characters (even Sean Bean's villain feels dialed in), the movie is all but stolen by Justin Bartha (who played the kidnap victim in Gigli) as Riley Poole, Gates' wise-cracking, twentysomething computer geek assistant. With seemingly no effort, Bartha injects the film with a sly humor and wit that works because it never feels forced. Bartha gets laughs and puts the audience at ease because every comment he makes feels organic to his character. Despite director Jon Turtletaub's attempts to generate thrills and chills by evoking everything from James Bond, to Indiana Jones, to The Da Vinci Code, Bartha's perfectly pitched sidekick is the best thing about the movie.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Walt Disney Pictures