National Treasure

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 12/02/04 02:36:35

"When dumb movies get fun..."
3 stars (Just Average)

I sense a bit of reluctance from some of you in buying the premise of “National Treasure,” in which we learn that there’s a secret map hidden on the back of the Declaration of Independence, and it’s up to Nicolas Cage can decipher it before the bad guys ruin everything. “Oh, like that would ever happen,” I can hear a couple of you nattering nabobs say to yourselves. “Even if the Founding Fathers were involved in some massive centuries-old conspiracy, and even if they were able to plant elaborate hidden messages across the colonies, and even if they went ahead and spelled it ‘purfuit of happinefs,’ knowing full well how much that would confuse the crap out of sixth graders two hundred years later... well, even if I’ll buy all of that, I’ll be damned if I’ll accept Nic Cage as a modern day Indy Jones type. Even if he was cool in ‘The Rock.’”

And to you, Mr. John Q. Run-on Sentence, I say chill. Yes, “National Treasure” is two hours of come-on-that’d-never-happen. But oh, how much fun it turns out to be anyway. It’s another dandy example of Hollywood dumb fun. Did I mention it’s from the master of dumb, producer Jerry Bruckheimer? And it’s directed by the guy who made “3 Ninjas,” “Disney’s The Kid,” and “Instinct.” And the credited writers have among their shared resumes “Bad Boys II,” “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle,” “I Spy,” and “Snow Dogs.” Wait, where are you going...?

That anyone could make a workable picture out of something with the names Jon Turtletaub and Cormac and Marianne Wibberly attached is a minor miracle. But hey, sometimes things work out, and the silly little action adventure that looks as smart as a head of lettuce will once in a while turn out to be, surprise, a nifty good time.

Cage stars as Benjamin Franklin Gates, fifth generation treasure hunter whose family obsession has been for some 170 years hunting down the Treasure of the Knights Templar, which is the world’s largest hidden treasure ever, or something. Don’t bother asking what Gates does for a day job, or how he affords his wacky enterprise; looking for logic in a Bruckheimer movie is like looking for actual meat in a hot dog. (Don’t ask how it was made, you don’t wanna know, just enjoy the damn thing.)

Anyway, for reasons convenient only to the plot, his treasure hunting associate, Ian Howe (Sean Bean), has turned into a baddie, leaving Gates and his smartalecky sidekick (Justin Bartha) to die in the Arctic Circle while he goes off and tries to steal the Declaration, which has the map on it, the next highly confusing clue leading to the treasure’s whereabouts. (If only the trail of clues would lead to the cast of “Midnight Madness”...) And so Gates and Sidekick decide that the only way to protect the Declaration is to steal it themselves.

All of this you already know from the trailer, which looked at first to be one of those that give away the entire plot. Turns out, nope. This caper idea is only the beginning of a zippy, convoluted (I’d say “complex,” but that would imply a higher IQ) adventure that leads to riddle solving, landmark hopping, and clock outrunning. As predictable as many of the scenes are, there’s something of a kick to watching our heroes decipher these silly puzzles. That, and the action sequences are a good ride, including a handful of tightly wound chases and a set piece involving a rickety staircase traversing what may be a bottomless pit. (Don’t ask.)

Turtletaub does his best to keep the film steamrolling ahead at a friendly pace, although most of the credit for the film’s success should go instead to editor William Goldenberg, who picks up the film’s rhythms with some slick cutting choices, and to the cast, who seems to realize just how silly it all is and decides to just have some fun with the dopey material. Bartha, in a giddy performance that effectively apologizes to the world for his vile turn in Gigli, gets all the good lines, while Cage and Bean add the charm of two actors who are enjoying the time off; they must have been telling each other in between takes, “hell, we could be working.”

And sometimes, that’s what I want from my movies. I’m a sucker for caper flicks and overly implausible mystery, and if you happen to get a few decent car chases and some dry Nic Cage wit tossed in, well, hey, bonus for me.

“National Treasure” pretty much boils down to this: if you’re not willing to suspend the disbelief that Benjamin Franklin had invented some special multicolored spectacles to decode a cryptic message hidden on the flip side of our nation’s most famous chunk of parchment, then chances are you’re not going to buy the ease with which Cage outwits the FBI, either, so you may be better off not watching in the first place.

On the other hand, if you can accept the notion that maybe, just maybe, one of our nation’s most famous buildings was constructed wholly in order to cast a very particular shadow on a very particular brick at a very particular time of day, then you just might like the part where... well, you get where this is going, so I should keep the goofiest parts to myself. Part of the fun here, after all, is figuring out where things are headed next - then watching the characters catch up with you. As realism, Turtletaub’s movie flops. As escapism, though, grab the popcorn, kick your feet up, and have a blast laughing with it.

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