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National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007) Print E-mail
Friday, 21 December 2007
“National Treasure” provided 2004 audiences with moderately entertaining escapism, though the story, inventive all along, finally gets too inventive in its spectacular but dimly-lit climax in a improbably deep pit under New York city. Even though it hinged on arcane elements of American history, the movie was a hit around the world.

And so, inevitably, here is the sequel, reuniting surviving members of the cast of the first outing. The movie opens with an elaborate restaging of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth; it’s somewhat over-realized, with hordes of extras celebrating the end of the Civil War. The ancestor of history adventurer Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) and his father Patrick (Jon Voight) solves a cipher—a “playfair” cipher, in fact—for Booth, unaware that it will lead the about-to-be assassin and his pals in the Knights of the Golden Circle to a vast treasure of gold. When Gates does learn this, the rips the pages from Booth’s diary (Booth is off shooting Lincoln) and tries to burn them. Booth’s henchman grabs one of the partly-burned pages.

And so now in the present day, as Ben and Patrick finish presenting their lecture on civilian heroes of the Civil War (a great topic), Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) stands up in the audience—with that missing page. It was his ancestor who grabbed it, and it seems to indicate that the Gates of the Civil War was a co-conspirator, perhaps the leader, with Booth.

Naturally, Ben and Patrick want to clear their forefather, and so the Big Quest of this movie begins. It requires examining that page, then enlisting computer geek Riley Poole (Justin Bartha) and historian Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) in the quest. This leads them to France to examine one of the two OTHER Statues of Liberty; what they learn takes them to London, and requires them to sneak into Buckingham Palace to get another clue. Ben, Abigail and Riley are followed everywhere by Wilkinson and his minions; he’s cloned Patrick’s phone and can eavesdrop on all that passes between Ben and his dad.

Back in the U.S., what they found in Buckingham Palace—a slab of wood carved with images in the Olmec language—means that they have to get together with Emily Appleton (Helen Mirren), Ben’s mother and Patrick’s ex-wife, whom he hasn’t seen in 32 years. She comes aboard the traveling circus which now heads for the Black Hills of Dakota, and Mount Rushmore, which hasn’t seen this many goings-on since “North by Northwest.” Then Ben has to kidnap the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood), but it’s a friendly snatch. Finally, now forced to include Wilkinson in their adventures, they try to find the great lost treasure: the golden city of Cibola. (I thought there were seven cities of Cibola; at least that’s what Uncle Scrooge and his nephews found.)
“National Treasure: Book of Secrets” has the same flaws and virtues as the original, only more of the former and fewer of the latter. It’s still hard to believe on several levels, such as Ben’s brilliance—he’s never wrong once—in deciphering clues, such as the inscription on the Parisian Statue of Liberty. (I’m not giving anything away when I say that it relates to the Resolute Desks.) The ease our pals have in sneaking into two of the most secure buildings on the planet—Buckingham Palace and the White House—is very hard to believe, but easy to forgive. Likewise everything regarding the President: Ben manages to isolate the President (at Mount Vernon, no less) and evade the Secret Service.

The Golden City of Cibola will stop historians in their tracks. The Olmec civilization in what’s now Mexico predates the Aztecs, going back to about 900 BC. They are not known to have ventured farther north than the present U.S.-Mexico border, but this movie places them as far north as the Dakotas, and depicts them building a huge UNDERGROUND city. Now this even non-historians are going to have a hard time buying. It’s clearly just an attempt to replicate the climax of “National Treasure;” the filmmakers clearly don’t really give a damn if we believe this for any longer than the movie runs.

More troublesome are other elements. Turtletaub hasn’t learned yet how to film car chases. This has an elaborate chase in the streets of London with the lead car in reverse part of the time; it also involves a beer truck that spills barrels of brew here and there. However, anyone who’s been to London knows the city is in a near-perpetual state of gridlock; any car chase isn’t likely to go farther than, say, a block. But more tellingly, the chase is ineffectually filmed; there are too many cuts, too many camera angles, too few scenes of powerful cars rocketing down highways in close pursuit of each other. The images are scrambled, the impact diluted and the chase hard to follow.

Turtletaub is pretty good a romantic comedies—“While You Were Sleeping,” for example—but oddly, doesn’t yet know how to shoot and, more importantly, edit rapid dialogue exchanges. His cameras are almost always too far back, he cuts on the wrong beats and blocks the actors awkwardly. He isn’t helped by the script, which is somewhat lamer than that of the first film. Movies like this—the pressbook compares it to “Charade”—need to have crisp, sharp writing matched by crisp, sharp editing and performances, but too often, this movie flubs this stuff.

Riley, played by Justin Bartha, is a case in point. We’re supposed to find him an adorable eccentric, always popping up with a funny comment, but though Bartha himself is okay, the lines he’s given are too often limp, lacking even dramatic impact, much less comic. The banter between Cage and Kruger is supposed to be classical romantic-team dialogue, but it isn’t. Just as in the first film, there’s zero romantic tension between Cage and Kruger; there was more wry attraction between him and First Lady Shirley MacLaine in “Guarding Tess.”

Ed Harris’ character is required to undergo several peculiar alterations, from gun-toting bad guy to, near the end, one of the heroic gang looking for that lost city. It’s amusing to see Oscar-winner Helen Mirren in these surroundings; she’s usually in much calmer surroundings though, of course, her “Prime Suspect” series of TV movies did occasionally put her in life-threatening circumstances. It’s a shame she isn’t given better dialogue here, but she looks like she’s having a good time and gamely enters into the rough-and-tumble action, which includes being swept through a cavern by a rushing river. She and Voight have several scenes together, and manage to make their dialogue exchanges brighter and more interesting than one might expect, given the circumstances.

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer relies again on Cormac and Marianne Wibberley (coyly billing themselves as The Wibberleys), who have written several bad scripts and no good ones. (“Bad Boys II” anyone?) Bruckheimer would have been better off using workhorses Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who wrote the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies for him. They worked on the story of “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” but should have been engaged to write the dialogue.

There are plenty of real historical nuggets scattered through the film: not only was the Knights of the Golden Circle a real the-South-shall-rise-again organization, but there are real legends that they possessed a now-lost treasure. The Presidents’ Book—the Book of Secrets of the title—is a real American legend, and there really are three Statues of Liberty. However, it’s not hard even for non-historians to tell the real history here from that which was invented for the movie. And several pages were indeed torn from John Wilkes Booth’s diary.

“Book of Secrets” is handsome in wide screen, with two cinematographers credited: Amir Mokri and John Schwartzman, who must have had to hustle on the foreign locations and in the Dakotas. Production designer Domnic Watkins mostly replicates real locations, but does come up with a spectacular set for a cave with waterfalls and the golden city. Some aspects of the climax appear to have been inspired, if that’s the word, by Howard Hawks’ peculiar “Land of the Pharaohs.”

“National Treasure: Book of Secrets” isn’t as fast-paced, funny or exciting as was intended, but it’s okay fun for a rainy afternoon. You arent’ likely to remember it a week later, but it’s far from bad enough to cause most people to regret having seen it. I suspect it will be popular enough to generate a third movie centering on strange secrets of American history.

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