When the first National Treasure came out in 2004, I wrote, “It’s impossible to feel very strongly one way or the other about National Treasure. It’s not great. It’s not terrible. It’s just sort of there. Watching this film, I never felt like I was wasting my time, but it’s doubtful I will remember much about it a year from now.” And in truth, I had to look at that review to remember the plot of the original. It’s also exactly how I feel about National Treasure: Book of Secrets—only a little less enthusiastic in general, in spite of feeling a little more enthusiastic about the cast due to the addition of Helen Mirren.
Still, it’s kind of a wash. As much as Mirren classes up the proceedings—and gives a sharply comedic performance—the movie itself is simply too much a retread of the first film’s formula. Bringing back Nicolas Cage, Justin Bartha, Diane Kruger, Jon Voight and Harvey Keitel (sporting some snazzy monkey suspenders), Jon Turteltaub as director and the Wibberlys (Cormac and Marianne) as writers assured that. It also probably assures that the film will be a huge hit.
However, probable box-office success doesn’t keep it from being a largely uninspired concoction—except possibly by comparison. After all, since the Wibberlys sport writing credits on movies like I Spy (2002), Bad Boys II (2003) and The Shaggy Dog (2006), the National Treasure offerings are almost Shakespearean. And with Cage turning up in movies like The Wicker Man (2006) and Ghost Rider (2007), this film, in contrast, is pretty darn classy material. On its own, the movie is a mildly pleasant diversion that has the bonus of being a family friendly PG-rated affair like its predecessor—and there’s something to be said for that. After all, how many movies are there that qualify as family friendly fare that don’t actively insult your intelligence (even if they strain your credulity) and evidence a modicum of wit? The list is not long.
This time around we find historian and treasure hunter Ben Gates (Cage) out to disprove allegations brought by Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) that some ancestor or other of his (it doesn’t really matter who) headed up the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. In order to do this, it transpires that Ben—with the aid of wisecracking sidekick Riley (Bartha), semi-estranged wife Abigail (Kruger) and mildly bewildered dad (Voight)—must find the legendary lost city of gold. This will ultimately involve dad’s really estranged wife (Mirren), the President of the U.S. (Bruce Greenwood), the all-seeing FBI bigwig Sadusky (Keitel) and scads of wildly improbable complications—most of which ought not be examined too closely for maximum enjoyment. (I’m sure somebody can rationalize how a clue left in 1865 will direct our heroes to clues left in 1876 and 1880, but I’m not bothering to do so.)
It’s all fairly agreeable, and the acting is at least as good as it needs to be—well, Ed Harris can’t seem to figure out if he’s the bad guy or merely a guy with serious inferiority issues, but the script is more to blame than Harris. The production values are certainly high, even if the lost city of gold is somehow less impressive than the original treasure. In fact, there’s nothing really wrong with National Treasure: Book of Secrets, except that it’s just more of the same—and that’s probably going to be just fine with fans of the first film. Rated PG for some violence and action.