National Treasure (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

I'm as willing as any movie-lover to accept a certain amount of ridiculousness in a movie if it serves the greater purpose of entertainment. And, when it comes to action movies, I like to think that my level of tolerance is pretty high. Hey, I enjoyed the first Tomb Raider movie. But National Treasure takes too many liberties and goes too far. This infantile excuse for an adventure yarn plays more like a triple-cross between The DaVinci Code, "CSI," and "The Amazing Race" than Raiders of the Lost Ark. In fact, as tempting as it might be to call this Raiders of the Pilfered Plot, that would be unfair, because National Treasure's storyline isn't compelling or coherent enough to warrant the term "plot."

National Treasure is one of those seemingly endless races that pits The Lord of the Rings' Boromir/Goldeneye's Agent 006 (Sean Bean) against "Treasure Protector" Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage). The movie seems longer than Around the World in 80 Days, but isn't as well-traveled. After a brief and confusing prologue spent in colonial times, the film takes us above the Arctic Circle, then to Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City. The best thing that can be said about this is that director Jon Turteltaub (Instinct, Phenomenon) elected to film in these places, rather than going to Toronto and pretending. (There are plenty of other things to strain the viewer's credulity - making believe Bloor Street is Broadway isn't needed.) Expert cinematographer Caleb Deshanel makes sure we know that the actors really are in D.C., Philly, and the Big Apple.

In movies of this sort, in order for so much pointless running around to have meaning, character investment is mandatory - consider, for example, Speed. Unfortunately, we have none. Ben acts like an autistic Sherlock Holmes, alternating between genius-like leaps of intuition and moments of astounding stupidity. Ben believes that there's a huge, hidden treasure that was squirreled away by the Founding Father members of the Freemasons (who have some sort of tenuous connection to the Knights Templar, although don't ask me to explain that in detail). The clues to its location are found on one dollar bills, hundred dollar bills, letters written by Ben Franklin, and on the back of the Declaration of Independence. Ben has managed to convince a few others of the validity of the treasure hunt, including his sidekick, Riley (Justin Bartha), and his rival, Ian (the aforementioned Borimir). Along the way, after stealing the Declaration, Ben picks up a love interest with impressive cleavage - the attractive Abigail (Troy's Helen, Diane Krueger). He kisses her once while they're in danger in a blatant attempt to convince everyone that this is really a date movie.

National Treasure is just plain dumb, and not dumb in a way that is enjoyable or endearing. The dialogue is clunky, resulting in more than a few intentionally funny lines. (My favorite: following an explosion near the North Pole, one of the characters pronounces, "Let's go before someone sees the smoke!" Who is he worried about? Santa Claus?) Nicolas Cage delivers every word with the solemn intonation of someone who doesn't understand what he's saying but thinks it must be important. And one is hard-pressed to figure out why Harvey Keitel, Christopher Plummer, and Jon Voight make appearances. (Perhaps the filmmakers have pictures...)

The movie follows a recognizable pattern: plodding exposition, running around in the arctic, plodding exposition, running around in Washington D.C., plodding exposition, running around in Philadelphia, plodding exposition, running around in New York City (and under New York City), plodding exposition, happy ending. It's all as uninspired and uninteresting as it sounds. There's a common belief that if a movie has enough movement, it cannot be boring. The reality is that movement without purpose is a sleep-inducer, and National Treasure has more than two hours of that.

Jerry Bruckheimer's fingerprints are all over National Treasure. Although the history-twisting conspiracy theories are borrowed from The DaVinci Code (which is soon to get its own cinematic adaptation), the visual style is pure "CSI" and the structure owes a lot to "The Amazing Race." Both of those TV shows are from Bruckheimer. This is yet another example of the small-screening of the big screen. Then again, considering the ratings those two programs get, National Treasure could be headed for box office gold. It's too bad it's missing the gems that make movies worthwhile: intelligence, character development, and a legitimate storyline. National Treasure deserves to be buried.

National Treasure (United States, 2004)

Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 2004-11-19
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1