While National Treasure had its detractors, I liked it and was looking forward to the sequel. Boy, was that a mistake.
Unlike many critics, I really liked the first National Treasure. I was willing to suspend disbelief and anything resembling logic and just go with the flow. Nicolas Cage was a decent Indiana Jones-lite and Justin Bartha added some good comic relief. Plus the treasure hunt and its weaving through American history was just a lot of fun to watch.
Almost everything that made that first movie dumb-fun enjoyment is missing from the inevitable sequel, National Treasure: Book of Secrets. The main players from the first movie are back. Cage, Bartha, Jon Voight, Diane Kruger, and Harvey Keitel reprise their roles and are joined by such fine actors as Helen Mirren and Ed Harris. The behind the scenes crowd is also the same; director Jon Turteltaub, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and screenwriters Cormac and Marianne Wibberley. They even stuck to the same formula, Cage’s Ben Gates running around historical landmarks looking for clues to a big treasure while pursued by a bad guy (this time Harris replacing Sean Bean.)
Unfortunately, what seemed fun, if not exactly fresh, the first time around is even less fresh and more plodding this time. While the movie opens with a fairly interesting recreation of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the involvement of the conspirators with one of Gates’ ancestors, it then quickly moves on to a standard “follow the clues and find the treasure map” story. Gates, Riley (Bartha), Abigail Chase (Kruger) and Gates’ father, Patrick (Voight), are led to look for a city of gold somewhere in the United States in order to prove that the Gates’ ancestor was not one of the Lincoln assignation conspirators. How are those two things related? Who knows? It’s not clear.
The motives of antagonist Mitch Wilkinson (Harris) are also very unclear. I guess the filmmakers felt that Sean Bean’s character from the first movie didn’t have much motivation other than greed, so they hint at a lot of what Mitch wants, but never clear it up to any satisfactory degree. He exists, along with most of the characters and plot developments, to move the story on to the next big set piece. Those set pieces are bigger this go round. The whole movie smacks of the concept “more is better.” Car chases through London, a huge cave sequence under Mt. Rushmore, kidnapping the President (Bruce Greenwood) to get his “book of secrets,” the action for action’s sake has been ramped up over the first movie. It doesn’t do much to engage the viewer, though, and it is often unclear how the pieces of the plot fit together.
Also unclear is the Wibberley’s decision to put not one, but two romances through the paces. This is a little odd, since prior to the first National Treasure, Turteltaub was best known for his romantic comedy, While You Were Sleeping. Cage and Kruger, who fell in love in the first movie, are estranged (naturally) and have to go through the courtship all over again. The pair has zero chemistry and their relationship was one of the weak points of the original film. Cage and Bartha are actually a much more interesting “couple,” but at this point, even their banter is wearing a little thin. In the general “more is better” theme, Voight and Mirren also give a go at a romantic storyline as bitter ex-spouses. They are more successful, but its still thrown into such a big bland stew, it doesn’t do much to pep up the movie overall.
There are a lot of common problems with sequels and National Treasure: Book of Secrets hits them all. It tries to make the same movie just with more: more stars, more action, more, more, more. Instead, it loses the fun and light touch that made the first movie something to enjoy. Even clicking your brain off won’t help this time around.
National Tresaure: Book of Secrets is the type of movie that 2 Disc Collectors Editions were created for. The stunts and set pieces are tailor made for behind-the-scenes looks and, unlike the movie itself, the DVD set does not disappoint. The discs look great and the sound is excellent, as would be expected from a major Disney release of a blockbuster film.
The only extra on the first disc is the commentary track by director Jon Turteltaub and Jon Voight. At one point Voight notes that the only reason he is there is that “Nicolas Cage wasn’t available.” The funny thing is that he’s probably right. Turteltaub takes the lead in the commentary (and most of the extras in general) and he is a very energetic commentator with a lot to say. Most of it is actually pretty interesting and he leaves very little uncommented upon. He has tremendous enthusiasm for the movie and you almost forget that it’s not very good when you hear him talk about it. He’s a little too “rah rah” at times, but he and Voight have some good comments at each other’s expense and overall it’s more fun than the movie itself.
The deleted material consists of five scenes and a blooper reel. The deleted scenes are generally pretty short and each comes with a Turteltaub into and an explanation for why it was deleted. There is one that runs about seven minutes and fully covers a clue that is solved much more quickly in the final film. Like most of the movie, it is both far-fetched and at times incoherent. The blooper reel is, as they generally are, a lot of fun to watch. This results in about 20 extra minutes of material.
The behind the scenes featurettes are pretty substantial and last about an hour altogether. Almost 20 minutes of that is focused on the lengthy underground sequence at the end of the film. “Underground Action” deals with some fairly impressive stunts related to a tipping platform that four of the characters end up on while looking for the city. The platform created to do the stunt is amazing. “Evolution of a Golden City” looks at the giant set built for the Golden City sequences and how it is an impressive mix of sets and some bluescreen.
Another 20 minutes is given for insight into some of the location shooting and location stunts, including the biggest car stunt in the movie. “Street Stunts: Creating the London Chase” goes in-depth into a technically impressive car chase through the streets of London. This is the most interesting and entertaining extra and will be fun for stunt junkies and those who wonder “how’d they do that” when it’s clear that little to no CG is being used for a big physical stunt. There are also some telling comments in this extra as to why the movie itself wasn’t so great. Turteltaub notes that he hasn’t seen a car chase in a movie in awhile and Bruckheimer says they were looking to “up the ante” with the action for the movie. It’s this sort of attitude that makes you realize why these guys thought simply putting more and bigger on the screen would be enough. Less interesting is “The Book of Secrets: On Location” which shows the cast and crew talking about going on location to Paris, London, Washington D.C., and South Dakota. It’s mostly designed so they can say “we really went to these places, these aren’t sets.”
If you have an interest in props, then a good extra is “Cover Story: Crafting the President’s Book.” While some of the cast members explain how the book fits in the movie and speculate about its possible existence, which is all very boring, they then show how the prop book was actually made. This is pretty fascinating and it shows how much involvement goes into just one key prop from a movie.
The final few extras include “Secrets of a Sequel,” which plays like a promotional video for the original movie release. The only interesting part is, like the comments made in the car chase extras, getting a sense from comments made by the filmmakers of what they were going for and why it didn’t work. The whole “bigger is better” ethic is spouted again and again. A very dull, but thankfully brief, extra called “Knights of the Golden Circle” has a few historians talk about the real Knights, who figure in the plot of the movie, and how they might, really, have gold buried somewhere in them, thar hills. The historians seem like cranks but everything is over pretty quickly, about 2 minutes. Then the producers add on “Inside the Library of Congress” which was probably a requirement for getting permission to film there. It’s supposedly a behind-the-scenes but plays more like a commercial for the place.
There are probably more Easter Eggs that I couldn’t find, but one is accessed on disc 2 and involves the difficulty in performing an underground stunt that involved rolling an idol down a platform. It’s brief but interesting.
The quality and length of the extras improves the value of this release. I don’t recommend getting the one disc version that only has the commentary unless you are a huge fan of the movie and never watch extras. The 2 Disc Collector’s Edition is decent even if the movie isn’t that great.