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.
Nicolas Cage stars as Benjamin Franklin Gates (whose whole family has Revolutionary War-era handles), a genially dorky fellow who is following the family tradition of searching for some (probably) mythical treasure picked up from the Templar Knights by the founding fathers. In case you really care about the whys and wherefores of the plot, don’t worry, it’s all spelled out – albeit somewhat incoherently and with quite a few gaps. (For more historical details, see “Here’s looking at you, America,” in Arts & Enternment elsewhere in this issue.)
After a prologue in which Ben’s grandfather, John Adams Gates (Christopher Plummer), explains all this to young Ben (Hunter Gomez), the film jumps to the present day. Here we find Ben and his comic sidekick, Riley Poole (Justin Bartha, Gigli), off on a hunt for a ship called The Charlotte, which holds a clue to the treasure and has somehow ended up buried in ice near the North Pole. (There is a quasi-scientific explanation for how it got there, though I’d have been just as satisfied if they’d told me the ship was on an expedition to find Santa’s stash of WMD.)
Ben finances the search with money from the immensely wealthy Ian Howe, a Brit named after a British Revolutionary War general. Ah, but since Howe has a British accent, he’s not to be trusted. When the clue points the treasure-hunters to a secret map on the back of the Declaration of Independence, Howe doesn’t think twice about stealing the document. Ben will have none of this, so Howe’s nefarious partner tries to blow up both Ben and Riley. (Astonishingly, this is the only explosion in this film produced by Jerry Bruckheimer — a fact that will probably end up in the next edition of Guinness World Records.)
Rescued and returned to civilization by some Eskimos, Ben tries to convince the authorities that the Declaration is in peril, and when they won’t listen, he sets out to steal it himself. Along the way, Ben ends up with a romantic sidekick, too, in the guise of archivist Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger, Troy), who finally believes Ben’s story.
Plenty of people will find this movie appealing, even though director John Turteltaub moves it along at a turtle’s pace. In the movie’s favor are some ingratiating performances from Cage and Bartha, and a positively revelatory one from the heretofore-bland Kruger.
The plot has been likened to a kind of Da Vinci Code-Lite, and indeed, the script has a certain simplistic cleverness, which is truly remarkable when you check the credentials of screenwriters Jim Kouf (Snow Dogs) and Cormac and Marianne Wibberly (I Spy). Oh, all right, you might reasonably wonder at the FBI agent’s (Harvey Keitel) mantra that “somebody has to go to prison” over a theft that no one knows about — but let that pass.
All in all, National Treasure is modestly engaging fluff that has the advantage of being “family-friendly,” which is unusual in non-animated movies these days. It won’t harm you. It might entertain you. And it just might intrigue the kids enough to spur them to hunt down pre-1995 historical facts, and that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Rated PG for action violence and some scary images.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke