National Treasure

As Nicolas Cage continues his slow transformation into Ichabod Crane, it’s nice to know that his career hasn’t totally tanked. Granted, after his critically acclaimed turn in Adaptation the world has nearly forgotten about him, but at least he’s not stuck playing bit roles in movies opposite Christian Slater. Instead, he landed the lead in National Treasure, another opportunity for him to do what he does best: Play a huge geek. In this case, Cage is a history geek, though in the past he’s played car nerds and chemical freaks. As usual, he’s a dork of action and uses his crazy knowledge to end up in all kinds of rascally adventures. In National Treasure he’s looking for the impossible, a fortune hidden by our founding fathers, the signers of the Declaration of Independence, over two-hundred years ago. The treasure has been the obsession of his family, the Gates family, for untold generations and has thus also made them something of a joke amongst academic circles. The legend of the treasure and the clues left leading to it are handed down from father to son, each in turn failing to unravel the mystery behind ultimate riches. But Benjamin Franklin Gates is closer than anyone in his family has ever been before, and with the aid of Ian Howe (Sean Bean), a wealthy investor, Gates unearths his most important clue north of the Arctic Circle. In his moment of triumph, his partner betrays and leaves him for dead. Howe’s intention is to steal the Declaration of Independence and possibly destroy it, believing that there is a treasure map hidden on the back. Being a patriotic sort, Benjamin decides the only way to protect the Declaration from Howe is to steal it first.

What follows is part Indiana Jones part Sherlock Holmes as Gates follows a string of creative and interesting clues across the country and through our national history. National Treasure is I suppose an action movie, yes, but it’s also surprisingly brainy. Director Jon Turteltaub seems to be having the most fun with it when his characters are simply sitting around brain storming. Strangely enough, I did too. The film is a welcome relief from the Bad Boys II’s of this world, freedom from pointless and mind numbing explosions. In fact, not once does anything blow up. The action in National Treasure never really gets heavier than a bit of spirited roof running and what’s more doesn’t need to.

This is the kind of movie that I imagine middle school history teachers showing their students on a free day. Not necessarily because it’s serious and believable, in fact some of the clues are admittedly a bit silly, but because it does such a marvelous job of making something intellectually electrifying out of the otherwise stale and stuffy topic of U.S. history. Much of the reason for that is simply the presence of Nic Cage, who has a knack for rattling off overly detailed technical or historical dialogue without boring his audience to death. Of course as his pot belly grows, the rapidly aging actor is becoming less and less convincing as an action hero, but that’s why a movie like this works so well for him.

Cage’s supporting cast mates do a nice job of holding their own right along with him. I especially liked the idea that the woman in charge of protecting U.S. history is a naturalized citizen, a German to be specific. Since she’s got blonde hair and blue eyes she looks like a blandly acceptable white American, it’s only when you hear her slightly off accent that you notice any difference. Still, the idea is a good one, and makes a sort of subtle statement about the greatness of the United States, a statement that probably could have been a little stronger had they character been cast as less caucasion, perhaps even an Iraqi. The film is filled with an understated kind of nationalistic arm pumping, starting with its fantastic musical score. The score is filled with strains of patriotic ballads mixed in with traditional action movie orchestrals. It’s a beautiful way of carrying your audience through a historical fact finding mission; the attenuated patriotism in the film’s soundtrack hinting that hey, maybe all this history is something to be pretty proud of.

National Treasure isn’t going to blow your doors off with mind blowing effects or pulse-pounding action sequences. It does have a few exciting chases and a creepy crawl down a dark tomb which work quite well, however the film’s focus is on unraveling a mystery. While perhaps the premise of a massive treasure hidden by our founding fathers is a little foolish, the film itself sells it with incredible intelligence and wit. This isn’t a big action blockbuster, but it’s an exciting little adventure movie that differentiates itself from the pack by focusing more on its string of clues than it does on setting up the next big piece of stunt work. Buena Vista Home Entertainment has put together a nice presentation of National Treasure on DVD, but one that suffers, oddly enough from being too creative for its own good.

Here’s the thing: This disc is full up on really nice special features and Buena Vista has gone to a lot of trouble to present them in an interesting format. The problem with this that “interesting format” also means pain in the freakin ass to access. The DVD is put together as a treasure hunting game, with only the movie and a few really basic special features accessible without going on a treasure hunt. In order to access some of the best stuff on the disc, like a really great short on real life treasure hunters, you have to solve annoying puzzles. Granted, these are pathetically easy to solve, but I hate jumping through hoops to watch them.

In order to watch all of the DVD’s special features, you must first watch the first layer of features on the disc, all in one sitting. If you do so, you’ll hear National Treasure’s tech geek Riley Poole (Justin Bartha) nattering on about saving clues, and then you’ll get a bunch of letters to plug into a computer. When you do so, it opens up another layer of special features on the disc. Like I said, annoying. I’d like to be able to sit down, pop in the disc and watch anything and everything on it whenever I want, with the press of a button. It’s like the world’s most annoying Easter egg.

Actually, while we’re on the subject, Easter eggs suck too. I bought the disc, I paid to see what’s on it, make it easy for me to see it without a lot of freakin hassle. Don’t hide your content from me, I just threw down a wad of cash to see it, not play hide and go seek. Look, I understand what Buena Vista is trying to do here and I applaud them for putting so much time and effort into this DVD release. But I’m a grown man, with a lot better things to do than play puzzle games with a fictional character from the movie I just watched. Other games I do not wish to play with my DVD include: This Little Piggy, Ring Around the Rosy, and Duck Duck Goose. Give me what I want when I want it. That’s not so much to ask.

Amidst all my whining, I’ve not spent a lot of time one what’s actually in this disc’s features section. Just know that it’ll vary depending on how much time you spend watching the disc. Most of it is short snippets on filming or things related to filming. It’s a nice set of features for a basic release; they’ve just tricked the menu up a little too much.