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National Treasure (2004)  Print E-mail
Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical
Written by Bill Warren   
Friday, 19 November 2004

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Film Rating:
2.5
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This action-adventure with an unusually complicated backstory seems to be aimed at the same audience as “Pirates of the Caribbean.” That is to say, the family crowd; it received a relatively innocuous PG rating, and is lighter and more frothy than any Indiana Jones adventure. Trouble is that it starts out like Indiana Jones and winds up like Lara Croft: it goes from intriguing, exciting and amusing, to dully spectacular, fracturing credibility as part of this descent.

Jerry Bruckheimer, not unexpectedly, produced, though it’s directed by a miscast Jon Turteltaub. He knows how comedic adventures should look, but he’s weak on timing; lots of gags just lie there due to a lack of the razor-sharp editing and precise acting timing this kind of thing requires. These requirements also elude screenwriters Jim Kouf and Cormac & Marianne Wibberly; they know that movies like this need some quick wisecracks, but the dialog here is pedestrian and colorless. But then again, these are the people who wrote (Kouf) “Operation Dumbo Drop” and (the Wibberlys) “Bad Boys II.” The writers know the rough shape of this kind of movie, but don’t know how to people it with the right characters or give them the right lines.

That being said, most of the film is mildly entertaining, a passable night at the movies. But the first half is so much better than the second that you leave with a sour feeling that replaced the fun you had during the first hour. On the other hand, a number of people at the press screening broke into applause at an ending I found especially flat.

Credibility is not this movie’s stock in trade. Nicolas Cage plays Benjamin Franklin Gates, a treasure hunter who was electrified by a tale his grandfather (briefly-seen Christopher Plummer) told him about a family tradition. It seems that the last signer of the Declaration of Independence passed on a clue indicating the whereabouts of an unimaginably vast treasure to their ancestor. Down through the years, the Gates family has been absorbed in the more outré areas of American history, and have gained notoriety rather than fame. Ben’s father Patrick (Jon Voight) doesn’t buy into any of this.

But Ben does. We first meet him when he, associate Ian (Sean Bean), computer geek Riley (Justin Bartha)—all movies like this have a computer geek these days—arrive at the site of an early 19th century ship buried in Arctic ice. They’re in quest of that vast treasure; the clue passed on to his great-great-(etc)grandfather has brought Ben to the spot. But there’s no treasure in the ship, just another mystifying clue that leads Ben to conclude (less than persuasively) that the map to the treasure is to be found on the back of the Declaration of Independence, in invisible ink.

Ivan and Ben have a falling out, and Ivan and his carefully matched henchmen leave Ben and Riley to die in the ship. It’s filled with gunpowder, you see.

But of course, Ben and Riley escape. Knowing that Ivan and his gang will try to steal the Declaration, they attempt to convince the FBI and others that the document is in danger. No dice. So, Ben peculiarly concludes, he must steal the Declaration himself to keep Ivan from getting it. There must have been other options.

The best sequence centers on the robbery. Ben knows the best time to grab the Declaration is during a big gala at the National Archives—and so does Ivan. Turteltaub inventively cuts between their different methods of robbery, with Ben’s being low-key and high-tech while Ivan’s depends on lots of cutting through metal and being well-armed. This is the most amusing and exciting section of the film, much more entertaining than the car chase (you knew there was a car chase, right?) following the robbery.

Ben and Riley have been reluctantly joined by National Archives historian Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), who’s trying to protect the Declaration, but who gets caught up in the mystery of clue after clue. She and Ben also fall for one another, but the actors don’t strike sparks; they end up in each other’s arms because the script says they must, not because they’re driven together.

Whenever the action pauses—which, for the first half, is rare---Turteltaub cuts to Bartha, who’s always ready with a smart but geeky wisecrack. This is a lame idea, but Bartha is very good in this stereotyped role, and actually more fun to listen to than anyone else in the movie. He never quite wears out his welcome, though he does come close to being more annoying than entertaining. This is partly because the script doesn’t give him any discernible motivations; we don’t know how he and Ben met, we don’t know what he expects to get out of the search (except, presumably, a share of the treasure).

We know more about Ben, but little about Abigail other than that she’s really really interested in American history. We know nothing at all about Ian, though he confesses to having committed crimes in the past. He isn’t, however, a standard thriller bad guy; he doesn’t actively try to kill Ben and the others, and is even nice to a little boy who’s been bribed by Riley to get information from a display of letters pseudonymously written by Benjamin Franklin.

The main element the movie is selling is the relationship to American History. Someone noticed that several of the Founding Fathers were Freemasons, then (perhaps from “The Maltese Falcon”) enlisted the Knights Templar in the elaborate back story. The unfinished pyramid with the all-seeing eye that’s on the back of dollar bills runs like a thread through the film, even though no one ever explains just what it’s supposed to symbolize.

The movie makes good use of locations as shot by great cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. We see not just the outside but the inside of some of the more prominent Washington D.C. governmental buildings, and there are excursions to Philadelphia, New York and the Arctic Circle. The sound is especially inventive in the Arctic sequences, with loud creaks, groans and crackles coming from all corners of the theater.

It’s a big-scale production that’s also somewhat low on star power. Christopher Plummer appears in one scene; Harvey Keitel shows up as a badly-dressed FBI agent, but is only rarely on screen. Jon Voight is extremely earnest as Cage’s father; he’s the only one who seems to think he’s acting in a profoundly serious drama.

The movie is fun for the first half or so, but much of the second half takes place in an orange-lit excavation that somehow has been dug five stories straight down under Trinity Church in New York. And in the 200+ years since then, nobody has ever even NOTICED this gigantic pit. No subway cut through it, no sewer pipes, no electrical conduits, nothing nowhow no way. This is so preposterous, and the scenes therein so relatively static (and dim) that most of the fun is drained out of the movie.

Also, there are just too many clues, and Ben is just too clever at instantly figuring them out. It’s amusing that American historical items and details (such as Franklin’s “Silence Dogood” letters) are woven into the script, but this is not especially involving. There isn’t much of a sense of menace once we realize that Ivan isn’t quite a bad enough villain to kill his rivals for the national treasure.

But it takes more to great a thrilling, funny adventure than an unusual premise and agreeable actors. It takes the right kind of writing, the right kind of direction, and in those areas in particular, “National Treasure” comes up short. It’s not a bad movie; if you see it, you’ll have a reasonably good time—but you’re likely to come away regretting that there wasn’t more gold in this particular treasure.







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