The numbers are in. The American people have spoken. How could this have happened? No, I’m not talking about the U.S. presidential election. I’m talking about the number one movie in America for two weeks in a row: National Treasure.
Our Bruckheimer-produced story begins in 1974, where a young boy named Benjamin Franklin Gates (who looks like a tiny Kurt Russell but will grow up to be Nicolas Cage) is rummaging through old family heirlooms. His grandfather (Christopher Plummer) interrupts the boy’s browsing with a tall tale about an ancient treasure “beyond all imagining.” The treasure has been accumulating since the time of the pyramids, constantly growing and constantly moving. After vanishing for 1,000 years, the treasure is found by Crusaders who take it to Europe. These men form the Knights Templar and vow to protect it, eventually becoming the Freemasons. Under their watchful eyes, the treasure eventually finds its way to the Americas. On a dark and stormy night — cue Large Marge, please — Charles Carroll, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, is racing to deliver an important message to the president. But alas, he cannot, and imparts the entire tale to a young man who happens to be the grandfather of Benjamin’s grandfather. It seems the Founding Fathers devised clues to the treasure’s whereabouts, but all the clues are lost but one. “Charlotte.” Is it a person? A place? Anyway, the Gates family passes the story all the way down to Benjamin, who becomes obsessed with finding it. Not for fortune and glory, but because it belongs in a museum. (Cue the Indiana Jones theme, please.)
Cut to the present. Benjamin has tracked “Charlotte” to the Arctic with financing from rich adventurer Ian Howe (Sean Bean). With the clue finally in hand, Benjamin deduces that the map to the treasure is on the back of the Declaration of Independence. (It’s also invisible.) Ian wants to “borrow” it. Benjamin and his sidekick Riley Poole (Justin Bartha) don’t think that’s a good idea, and barely escape with their lives. But Benjamin knows that Ian, whose past includes “a number of activities of questionable legality,” will steal the Declaration. So, to protect it, he decides he’ll have to steal it first.
And steal it he does, but now what? He must evade Ian and his goons and the full weight of the U.S. government, which wants its precious Declaration back. He gets reluctant help from historically minded Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) and his own father, Patrick Gates (Jon Voight), who has seen “six generations of fools” from his family throw away their lives and reputations on “that stupid treasure.”
If you think an invisible map on the back of the Declaration of Independence is a silly idea, just wait until you see how they read it. (I’d tell you, but if you do see the movie it’s one of those moments you just have to see for yourself.) One lame red herring after another is punctuated with dialogue like this golden, patriotic nugget: “The Declaration of Independence is not a bargaining chip!” (My favorite line is one spoken by Dr. Chase in a critical moment: “That’s dumb!” And it is. Oh, it is.) Though the film promises high adventure, there’s really not that much action. The plot consists primarily of Benjamin going from place to place, finding more clues that lead to more clues that lead to more minutes of silliness. Director Jon Turtletaub (While You Were Sleeping, Disney’s The Kid) has only one prior action credit to his name, and that’s 3 Ninjas. Though he has succeeded in making a film your whole family can enjoy, it’s never quite an action film. (The Goonies has more thrills than this.)
You’ve got to give Nicolas Cage a lot of credit for remaining earnest and cool throughout. Justin Bartha gets lots of bad material, but still manages to get some laughs. (Keep an eye on his facial hair, which tends to fluctuate throughout the movie. Now that is a mystery worth solving.) On the surface, Diane Kruger brings to mind Alison Doody’s Dr. Elsa Schneider from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but her character enjoys none of the lust or zeal that Doody wrapped herself around so wickedly. Sean Bean’s performance as Boromir remains one of the Lord of the Rings trilogy’s most noble and memorable, but here he’s reduced to another typical bad guy role. (Don’t worry. He’s awesome as always.)
As the film races to its big finale, it feels like a Disney ride. But Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was actually based on a Disney ride, and that was a fun film. Sometimes National Treasure tries too hard. Other times, it doesn’t try quite hard enough. Given the happy ending for our “treasure protectors” and the massive box office, expect a sequel. International Treasure, anyone? No matter how you shake it down, this thing’s a national disaster.