“Of course someone else is after the treasure. It’s the axiom of treasure hunting.”
National Treasure was the surprise hit of 2004. Based on a supremely moronic premise—a treasure map secretly printed on the back of The Declaration of Independence—the movie offered equal parts action and laughs, which forgave the many historic inaccuracies and plot loopholes. Now, director Jon Turteltaub (Cool Runnings) and the original cast are back for another go-around. This time, the history has to do with the Lincoln assassination, the map is known only to the U.S. President, and the treasure is a long-lost Native American myth.
The last time we saw history-obsessed Ben Gates (Nicholas Cage, Ghost Rider), he had successfully found a secret Templar treasure, which made him and his sidekick Riley (Justin Bartha, Failure to Launch) very rich. As this movie begins, though, the IRS is after Riley, and Gates is on the outs with his love interest, Abigail (Diane Kruger, Troy), and he’s moved back in with his father (John Voight, Anaconda). A rival historian and treasure hunter, Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris, The Rock), then shows up, announcing that one of Ben’s ancestors is listed in a missing page of John Wilkes Booth’s diary, discrediting the Gates family. Ben, however, believes his ancestor was being used by Civil War-era Southern extremists to decipher a clue to ancient treasure. Therefore, in order to clear his family’s good name, Ben takes it upon himself to find the treasure. This takes him, Riley, Abigail, his father, and eventually his mother (Helen Mirren, The Queen) across the globe and back again, from one chase and deadly scrape to the next.
Like the first National Treasure, this movie is best enjoyed in “turn off your brain” mode. There’s a lot of crazy action, some funny scenes, and no shortage of gorgeous scenery and take-your-breath-away sets. The story, however? Hoo boy. Our heroes sneak into some of the most well-guarded places in the world without breaking a sweat, find ancient clues that no one else has been able to locate after hundreds of years, and, yes, they even kidnap the U.S. President—rather easily, I might add.
This movie is Heaven for nitpickers. Is a globe-hopping trip in search of a mythical treasure really the only way to clear a family’s good name? There’s a secret message engraved onto the torch of the French version of the Statue of Liberty that no one’s ever noticed before? And since when does the National Parks Service let people go hiking on top of Mount freakin’ Rushmore?
But it’s the “kidnapping the President” part of the plot stretches believability far too thin. It’s one thing for the President to want to see a secret tunnel devised by George Washington, but another for him to do so while ordering his many bodyguards to wait outside while he does it. And then, he more or less just hands over super-ultra-mega-top-secret info to Ben after Ben makes a stirring speech about Abe Lincoln?
But, again, if you turn off your brain, there’s a lot of fun to be had here. A car chase through some very narrow London streets is a real adrenaline rush, as is a close-shave escape from cops at the Library of Congress. All the treasure-hunting in the finale is also exciting, if credibility-stretching. The characters are first trapped on a precariously balanced platform, and then they’re swept away by a raging underwater river. It’s to the filmmakers’ credit that these big set pieces can be enjoyable despite the ridiculousness of the plot that set them up.
Nicholas Cage is obviously having a lot of fun returning to this character and his world. There’s a scene where he goes into his usual “bug-eyed and screaming” shtick, but for once, Cage’s hysterics are made a part of the plot, instead of just random overacting. This way, when he transforms into Goofball Cage, it’s actually fun and not stomach-churning. Bartha is not quite as much of a wisecracker as he was in the first movie, but he still gets some of the best one-liners, diffusing any seriousness when needed. Kruger is once again in the position of being Cage’s foil—she’s here so he can have someone to playfully bicker with. Still, she shows a lot of spunk and she’s gorgeous, so that’s OK. Voight drops that strange “Quid Pro Quo, son” act he did in the first film, coming across as more human and less weird-guy. Helen Mirren is also having fun, with her own share of winning one-liners.
Not all the actors impress, however. Ed Harris, an actor I usually enjoy, phones it in. His villain is so unimpressive, he had me missing Sean Bean’s icy stare from the first movie. Harvey Keitel (Pulp Fiction) returns as the FBI agent who pursues Ben, but he doesn’t have any menace this time around, and there’s never any sense that he and Ben are friends now. Of course, once Ben kidnaps the President, you’d think the agent would drop the camaraderie and take up the hunt. Instead, Keitel plays the manhunt in a casual, relaxed manner, which doesn’t strike me as right for the character.
As expected for a recently made bazillion-dollar Hollywood action movie, the picture and sound on this two-disc set are excellent. The colors are vibrant and lifelike, and the black levels are deep and rich. The audio rocks in 5.1 surround, with screeches tires, snapping ropes, raging waters, and Trevor Rabin’s score blasting out of all speakers and roaring around the room.
Disc One has a commentary with Turteltaub and Voight, in which Turteltaub does most of the talking. This one reveals a lot of behind-the-scenes tricks, as well as how much of the script was written and re-written during filming. From there, Disc Two has a collection of featurettes, focusing mostly on the production, such as location filming, stunts, and set design. Some deleted scenes with intro by Turteltaub and the usual goofy collection of outtakes round out the package. Overall, it’s a nice group of extras that shed a lot of light on the movie.
On the commentary, Turteltaub makes numerous references to scenes and shots that were cut, including an entire car chase, but they don’t appear on Disc Two’s deleted scenes. For as packed as extras as this set is, could there be an even-more-packed edition planned timed for release when the inevitable third movie hits theaters?
If I were to sum up this movie in one word, it’d be “corny.” It’s visually rich and has some nice laughs, but the story is beyond silly. It’s not a good movie, exactly, but it is entertaining.