by Mel Valentin
"National Treasure," a family-oriented action/adventure film produced by Disney and modeled on Dan Brown’s bestselling novel, "The Da Vinci Code," opened to mostly positive reviews and, more importantly, ended with almost 350 million dollars worldwide. With that kind of box office take, a sequel was practically inevitable. Three years later, Disney is back with "National Treasure: Book of Secrets," an almost beat-for-beat retread of "National Treasure" that also fails to be anywhere as fun and entertaining as its predecessor. Lowered expectations, however, aren't likely to stop family-oriented audiences or fans of the first film from seeing "Book of Secrets," if not in a movie theater, then on DVD or cable. What they’ll see, however, is Hollywood filmmaking at its most mediocre.Treasure hunter Benjamin Gates (Nicolas Cage), basking in the fame, celebrity, and reward that followed the discovery of the Founding Fathers’ treasure in the first film, is apparently in demand as a lecturer. At a “Civilian Heroes” lecture where he recounts the role his great-, great-grandfather played in attempting to stop the assassination of President Lincoln in 1865, gets a rude awakening when a stranger in the audience, Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris), interrupts his lecture and accuses Ben’s ancestor, Thomas Gates (Joel Gretsch), of collaborating with John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators to assassinate Lincoln. Wilkinson claims to hold a missing page from Booth’s diary that lists Thomas Gates as a co-conspirator. The diary also contains a cipher that hides the location of Cibola, the lost city of gold.
"Far less fun and entertaining than its predecessor."
Eager to prove his ancestor’s innocence, Gates decides to find the lost city. To that end, he gets his friend and sidekick, Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), and his no-longer-estranged, academic father Patrick (Jon Voight), to help. Estranged from his girlfriend, Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), Gates tries to keep her out of the treasure hunt, but she becomes involved anyway. The first clue leads Ben and Riley to Paris and a smaller version of the Statute of Liberty designed by Édouard Laboulaye. Clue found, it’s off to London, England and Buckingham Palace, where Ben, Riley, and Abigail (joining them from the U.S.) have to slip through the palace’s security and find one of two so-called Resolute desks. The Resolute desk contains a secret compartment and the secret compartment contains a plank covered in pre-Columbian glyphs. Luckily for Ben, if not his father, Ben’s mother, Emily Appleton (Helen Mirren), just happens to be a professor of pre-Columbian, Native American languages. Plus, she teaches at the nearby University of Maryland.
The remainder of Book of Secrets takes Ben and the supporting cast, including Wilkinson who, of course, is also after the treasure, back to Washington, D.C., Mt. Vernon, Virginia for a brief conversation with the president of the United States (Bruce Greenwood), back to D.C. for a stop at the Library of Congress, and Mt. Rushmore, a plot point reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s far superior double-chase/wrong man classic, North by Northwest, but instead of a chase on Mt. Rushmore, Ben and the supporting cast end up somewhere inside, echoing National Treasure’s third act. Not every location change includes the requisite set piece to amp up Book of Secrets’ flagging pace, but most do. Of those set pieces, only a car chase through London’s cramped streets and another one involving a giant, disintegrating fulcrum are worthwhile. The other set pieces suffer from the same lack of energy, enthusiasm and inventiveness that permeates Book of Secrets, from the stolid, unedifying storyline to the uninspired performances.
Story wise, the credited screenwriters for Book of Secrets, Marianne Wibberley and Cormac Wibberley (The Shaggy Dog, National Treasure, Bad Boys II, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, I Spy, The 6th Day) simply treated the first film as a template to reuse for the sequel, switching out villains, adding one character (Ben’s mother), switching Ben’s strained relationship from his father to his girlfriend, and shaping the mystery/treasure hunt around well-known incidents or events from American history (the Founding Fathers in the first film, John Wilkes Booth and his diary in the sequel). Motivations are either shallow or murky; likewise with the conflicts that drive the ludicrous plot and the banal dialogue that fails to convey the characters’ personalities or any wit or humor.The performances are just as bland, with Cage adding the usual verbal and physical tics and everyone else, including sadly, Helen Mirren, left to fend for themselves with a mediocre script and failing to make their characters engaging on anything except a superficial level. Of course, that won’t stop Disney from greenlighting a second sequel to round out what will be inevitably called a trilogy. Once burned audiences may not be as interested in seeing another entry in the franchise, especially after the prequel to "The Da Vinci Code," "Angels & Demons" hits theaters next summer.
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originally posted: 05/25/08 00:00:00