by David Cornelius
Why, why, why do I like the “National Treasure” movies? They are, of course, big ol’ piles of dumb, with goofy dialogue, gaping plot holes, and, of course, a cheesetastic leading performance from Nicolas Cage at his campiest. In his recent DVD column, our own Peter Sobczynski called the original film “sort of a ‘Da Vinci Code’ for idiots,” but looking again at the franchise’s goofy, enjoyable-despite-itself charms, I prefer another analogy: it’s “Goonies” for grown-ups.“National Treasure” and its new sequel “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” are ripping treasure-hunting adventures that play out with a heady mix of stupidity and glee, abandoning all but the simple desire to provide slick thrills and winking humor. These are popcorn movies at their popcorniest, inviting us to laugh along with all the nonsense. And when the filmmakers start to take things a bit too seriously, it somehow adds to the appeal.
"Tops 'Transformers' on the list of Idiotic Movies That Are Big Fun Anyway."
More than its predecessor, “Book of Secrets” forces me to be exceedingly apologetic on its behalf. This a busy film, sweeping from Civil War mythology to presidential conspiracy to a hidden city of gold, and it’s way, way, way too much. Not because it’s overloaded - the story is so consistently breezy that the convoluted plot never feels top-heavy - but because almost all of the plot threads and historic concepts bandied about are all too relatively trivial. Here is a film that gives us the Presidential Book of Secrets, a classified collection of the truth behind a nation’s meatiest conspiracies, and it treats it as little more than a wafer-thin plot point, a MacGuffin so haphazardly tossed into the storyline that it never quite earns its spot as the movie’s subtitle. Just how do you get away with calling you movie “Book of Secrets” and then not really bother to do anything important with the Book of Secrets?
In fact, the screenplay, by Cormac and Marianne Webberley (who also co-authored the original), is so misguided that it takes what could serve as the entire plot for another movie and shoves it in here as Just Another Scene. In one scene, hero Ben Gates (Cage) must break into the Queen’s office at Buckingham to find a hidden object; later, he must talk his way into the Oval Office for the same reason; later still, he realizes that his only option in continuing his quest is to kidnap the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood). Each of these could serve as the climax of another film. Here, however, the Webberleys have concocted a list of Neat Things Nic Cage Should Do This Time Around, which leaves all of these thrilling ideas reduced to little more than our hero ticking off items on a scavenger hunt: menu from a local diner, out-of-state license plate, used Billy Joel LP, Presidential Book of Secrets, photo of a teammate posing with a Big Boy statue.
Ah, but the scavenger hunt aspect is what makes this franchise work. (And yes, it is now a franchise: the finale teases at a possible third entry.) Little things like logic and motivation are meaningless in this chapter; all that counts is the tempo of the action, which drums along from place to place to place to place so nicely that when major discoveries and key set-ups are later deemed irrelevant, we hardly care. We’re swept away by a tidal wave of adventure sequences and a frantic pacing that convinces us that yeah, sure, there’s no time to study the Book of Secrets, because you guys gotta get to Mount Rushmore, like, right now, before Ed Harris beats you to it!
I seem to have gotten ahead of myself. For “Book of Secrets,” Ben Gates and his father, Patrick (Jon Voight, promoted from extended cameo to full-time player), are dismayed to learn that an ancestor has been accused of being a top conspirator in the Lincoln assassination. This report comes from Ed Harris, looking so weaselly that you’re surprised anyone believes him. But they do, which means Ben has to start another of his grand puzzles-and-danger road trips, something involving a Confederate plan to find the Lost City of Gold.
“Book of Secrets” is such an in-the-now movie that by the third act, we hardly care that the whole thing about clearing the good name of Ben’s ancestor winds up not really mattering at all. Like everything else in this picture, it’s just a way to leapfrog us to the next clue in the trail of hidden riddles. Returning director Jon Turteltaub once again keeps things moving at a clip, never letting his characters slow down enough for the audience to realize they’re watching a whole heap of nothing. Pile on enough action set pieces (which genuinely thrill) and comic relief (which genuinely tickle), and let’s all giggle together at the whole mess.Plus, it’s a hoot to see folks like Helen Mirren (who pops in as Ben’s mother and pretty much steals the show) and Ed Harris slum their way through what must obviously have been a couple dizzy weeks of light work. By the time you’re smiling at the sight of Mirren swinging on a vine across a bottomless chasm in a dank, mysterious cavern of ancient mysteries, you’re glad you came along for the ride.
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originally posted: 12/21/07 13:27:59