Hollywood super producer Jerry Bruckheimer has had his fair share of hits and misses over the past couple years. After his last Disney dud, King Arthur, failed in every way shape and form, can his latest family friendly Treasure hunt find an audience? Or for that matter, be any good? We’ll have to wait for it to hit theaters to gauge audience response, but I have to say, National Treasure ain’t a bad movie. By no means is it a great film, but it is the kind of mindless fun that you most often find in mid-June rather than around turkey time.
The story of the lost treasure of the Free Masons is nothing more than a myth and a joke to the historical community, but it is the life’s work of Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) and his family. Benjamin must prove that it, at the very least, exists. He and his associate Riley Poole (Justin Bartha) work tirelessly to unravel every clue laid before them from the past. It is only when double-crossed by his partner, Ian Howe (Sean Bean), that Benjamin must take matters into his own hands, forcing him and Riley to steal the Declaration of Independence, since they believe holds the key to their mystery. With the Declaration and its babysitter, National Archives curator Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), in tow Benjamin and Riley must piece together their puzzle and jump over every hurdle their journey lays in front of him. They're stuck outrunning the F.B.I. as well as Ian and his band of greedy henchmen in the race to ultimate treasure.
Much like he did in The Rock (another Bruckheimer production) Nicolas Cage plays a geeky action hero. Benjamin’s super nerdiness for history would make the likes of Alex Trebek quiver in fear. It’s great to see Cage in a borderline action movie as an actual character. He’s an excellent cinematic wuss, and pretty cool to watch. Cage’s brilliance aside, this flick isn’t perfect. What hurt the film wasn’t Cage, or even Bruckheimer’s involvement; it’s all the fault of director John Turteltaub (While You Were Sleeping).
Turteltaub’s work here looks like a bad Michael Bay impression. Full of swooping camera moves and quick cuts, this film needed the real Michael Bay in order for it to be - dare I say it - cooler. If Bay was the helm, it might have washed our memories clean of his last Bruckheimer bombs Bad Boys II and Pearl Harbor. It could’ve been what it is being marketed as, a kind of Tomb Raider meets Con Air. Instead what we get is a social studies scavenger hunt that begs for more energy. It needs the kind of excitement you could only get by being handcuffed to a bed, covered in mozzarella cheese and marinara sauce, with the Olsen twins close by eagerly willing go on a pizza binge. Okay, maybe not that exciting, but at least that would have been a hell of a lot better.
Regardless, there are some very good moments in this flick. Justin Bartha is mildly amusing in his obligatory comic relief role. Slowly but surely he’s wiping away that little smudge on his resume called Gigli. Sean Bean is, as always, a great nemesis. Whether being pitted against James Bond, Mr. Frodo, or even a geeky Nicolas Cage, Bean never fails to be the guy we love to hate. Diane Kruger, whose face launched a thousand CG ships this summer in the Brad Pitt led epic Troy, plays the intellectual hottie “Dr. Abigail Chase” with so much subtlety that you’ll forget how “Hollywood” her character name sounds. Filling out the cast is an ensemble of extended cameos, including Harvey Keitel, Christopher Plummer, and Jon Voight. Harvey Keitel phones it in as the head FBI investigator. Clearly he and was cast in the part just so he could give a poignant monologue at the end. Without that, the role has no business being his. Christopher Plummer gets the difficult job of being the expositionist. At the very beginning of the movie it is he who tells the complete story of the treasure to both young Benjamin and us for the very first time. Plummer convincingly delivers this “legend” as the wise old grandfather and does such a bang up job in the opening ten minutes of National Treasure that I have to admit… he had me hooked. Finally, there is Jon Voight who plays Benjamin’s skeptic father, and through most of the movie proves only to be a nuisance.
National Treasure is not seeking any serious critical attention nor is it likely to make a huge dent in the world of cinema. It is however a smart, entertaining little adventure through American history. When this gets released, you’ll have a choice: National Treasure, an animated sponge, or Renée Zellweger pandering for more golden attention. Go with National Treasure. Maybe you’ll learn something.