The Theory of Chaos

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW - National Treasure: Book of Secrets

Full review behind the jump

National Treasure: Book of Secrets

: Jon Turteltaub
: Story by Gregory Poirier and Cormac Wibberley & Marianne Wibberley & Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio, Screenplay by “The Wibberleys” (Cormac Wibberley and Marianne Wibberley), based on characters created by Jim Kouf and Oren Aviv & Charles Segars
: Jerry Bruckheimer, Jon Turteltaub
: Nicolas Cage, Justin Bartha, Diane Kruger, Jon Voight, Helen Mirren, Ed Harris, Harvey Keitel, Bruce Greenwood, Ty Burrell

This is something I almost never do: see a sequel without seeing the original picture. But I was wandering around Chicago with a friend on a blustery January day, and I’d seen everything else that the warm, inviting multiplex had to offer, and he promised me that there was nothing essential to the first movie that he couldn’t explain to me in sixty seconds.

He turned out to be right, and
National Treasure: Book of Secrets (all the hip sequels are using colons and subtitles these days) turns out to be better than getting damp in Chicago snow for two hours. What I mean to say is that it is a success in terms of its own goals, which are to divert you for awhile with a professionally-prepared menu of pitfalls and puzzles and movie stars being charming. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer can knock these things out like Thomas Kinkade does creeks.

It is a movie that has learned exactly two things from Alfred Hitchcock: 1) Mt. Rushmore makes a dilly of a film location, and 2) a movie’s length should be determined by the carrying capacity of the audience’s bladder. Rarely does a movie so precisely avoid wearing out its welcome, probably because rarely is that so near to its grandest ambition.

The adventure features Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage), a treasure hunter whose ability to miraculously tease together arbitrary or just plain made up nuggets of Masonic lore, historical trivia, and ephemera about our founding fathers rivals the famed televised duels of wit between Adam West’s Batman and Frank Gorshin’s Riddler. His job is to discover squirreled-away hoards of gold so massive that they would capsize the world’s economy and likely trigger a few medium-sized wars. Cage is the right movie star for this role, since he has the ability to treat this like it’s a really cool way to spend a weekend.

He gets into his latest mission out of family pride, when a mysterious Southerner named Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) steps forward with some heirlooms that suggest one of Gates’ ancestors was a co-conspirator in the assassination of President Lincoln. Harris can drip sinister on demand like a fine-tuned espresso machine, but his character’s machinations end up as far less than meets the eye. He’s really only a villain to the extent that somebody’s got to squeeze off a few rounds of ammo and trigger a car chase just to meet quotas.

Gates always understood that his great-umpty-great grandfather’s role in this long-ago story was not to help the plotters, but to destroy the code phrase they had brought to him to decrypt – a pointer leading to the legendary Lost City of Gold, which the rebels hoped to use to finance a few more years of Civil War. So Gates decides that he has no choice but to find that treasure, since if it exists, that must mean his ancestor was innocent. I believe that the website would agree with me in identifying this as an example of “Affirming the Consequent”, since the question of the existence of a City of Gold is no direct means of proving whether or not a dead code-breaker assisted John Wilkes Booth. Maybe in a future sequel, Benjamin Franklin Gates will use the “No True Scotsman” fallacy to prove that the McGuffin can’t capture lions in the Scottish highlands.

Anyway, Gates’s pursuit of the myriad clues leading to the City will logistically demand breaking into the private office of the Queen of England, and kidnapping the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood) in order to get a look at the fabled “Book of Secrets”, which is passed down from one Chief Executive to the next, and contains the answer to every conspiracy crank’s wildest fantasy. Emotionally, it will require that Gates reunite with his on-again, off-again paramour Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), put up with more chuckles from wisenheimer geek squad sidekick Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), and get his long-divorced parents (Jon Voight and Helen Mirren) talking again.

We get lots of dramatically-whooshing shots of famous international monuments, and elaborate soundstage sets depicting cavernous mazes filled with low-tech but devious traps. There’s lots of peril, and leaping across chasms, and rumbling noises on the soundtrack depicting falling boulders of medium-size, or the coming of thousands of gallons of water. Cage gets to do some James Bond-like skulking around in a tuxedo at the Mount Vernon Estate and in the Library of Congress, invariably avoiding the combined scrutiny of the police, FBI, and Secret Service. Voight and Mirren are fun to watch as a pair of scholars not too old to remember how much their own treasure hunting used to turn them on. The jokes are pretty amusing, and the movie knows when it’s time to move it along.

It takes a lot of money to make a movie like National Treasure: Book of Secrets, not the equivalent of a City of Gold, but certainly a sum that even ten years ago would be reserved only for the most extravagant productions. If there’s art to it, it’s the kind of art that might go into making Nestle’s hot cocoa powder – something that travels well, doesn’t offend in the memory, and provides general satisfaction to as broad a swath of the population as possible. I’ve had some fun at National Treasure’s expense in this review, but I feel not a drop of malice for it. On a cold day in Chicago, something that’s capably generic still warms me up.


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