National Treasure: Book of Secrets (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

How to review a movie that's essentially a copy of its predecessor? The temptation is to simply copy what I wrote about the first National Treasure into this space with a few minor edits to account for name and location changes. Everything from the earlier review is valid for this chapter. Not only are the movies so similar as to be largely indistinguishable but they regurgitate identical problems. (The saying goes, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." What if it is broke, but no one cares?) In fairness, it should be noted that the original National Treasure developed a surprisingly large following and it's a pretty good bet that those who liked the first movie will probably appreciate the second. After all, it's not much different than popping the older feature in the DVD player.

National Treasure did an excellent job of illustrating how perpetual motion in a movie can be boring. Book of Secrets makes sure that if we missed the lesson the first time around, we're going to be given a second chance. The film is all about moving from Location A to Location B, chasing down an improbable clue, being chased by misguided lawmen or poorly motivated bad guys, throwing in a little exposition, then moving to the next place and repeating. To make sure the formula for Book of Secrets doesn't vary from that of National Treasure, the climax occurs underground with things collapsing. The "peril" our heroes find themselves in isn't the kind that will get the blood pumping. In fact, I doubt my pulse was elevated at any time during the proceedings.

Book of Secrets is a second-rate rip-off of Tomb Raider which was, in its own right, a second-rate rip-off of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The movie goes out of its way to appeal to conspiracy buffs. In fact, that's its main lure since the generic and uninteresting action is unlikely to draw a lot of viewers. However, the conspiracy angle is another matter; people eat that stuff up. That's why The Da Vinci Code is so popular. The conspiracies explored in Book of Secrets are poorly conceived but I suppose they might make sense for anyone who pretends not to know much about history and resolutely refuses to think about the details. Those who have minds equipped with a shut-off switch will enjoy what Book of Secrets has to offer far more than those forced to think at any point during this movie.

What's somewhat shocking is the amount of star power and talent latent in the cast. There are three Oscar winners (Helen Mirren, John Voight, Nicolas Cage) and two nominees (Ed Harris, Harvey Keitel). Jerry Bruckheimer must pay really well to stack the deck like that, yet director Jon Turteltaub (who foisted the first National Treasure upon us) has no idea how to use his actors. The pacing would have improved dramatically if Mirren and Voight's unnecessary characters had been snipped. Cage provides us with a bland, generic, erratic genius and risk-taker. Harris, who has played the heavy from time-to-time throughout his career, forgets he's supposed to be menacing. (Not that his character is given a consistent motivation. His about-faces are enough to give one whiplash.) Keitel appears and disappears as required by the plot and never accomplishes much of anything.

Without going into too much detail, which would reveal how little sense the underlying premise makes, treasure hunter Ben Gates (Cage) is out to prove that his great-great grandfather didn't participate in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. In order to do this, he must find the fabled lost City of Gold. The route to discovery lies in peeking under the Queen's desk in Buckingham Palace, providing a similar inspection of its twin in the Oval Office, and kidnapping the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood, who once played President Kennedy). Aiding Ben in his efforts are his father, Patrick (Jon Voight); his mother, Emily (Helen Mirren); his former girlfriend, Abigail (Diane Kruger); and his annoying sidekick, Riley (Justin Bartha). The villain is Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris), who wants to beat Ben to the discovery and is willing to kill and maim to achieve that aim.

Book of Secrets has enough running around to delight fans of TV's The Amazing Race and it isn't deficient in action. What's missing is excitement. Students of movies understand that this equivalency is not true: action = excitement. Other elements beside movement and chaos are needed to elevate the adrenaline level. Book of Secrets doesn't have them. The car chases are a good example. The average car chase is dull enough to put an overcaffeinated movie-goer to sleep, yet this is exactly what Turteltaub gives us (and not once but twice). Everything in this movie is done according to formula without a moment's variation. The pacing is off, with the bloated 130 minute length providing ample evidence. The experience of watching this production is dispiriting because the whole thing is so repetitive and unnecessary. Rarely have I had such a powerful sense of déjà vu while watching a motion picture.

Is it possible to enjoy Book of Secrets? Obviously, although its lunacy requires a level of suspension of disbelief that some will be incapable of attaining. When the laws of logic and physics are so willfully ignored in a world that is supposed to represent our own, it can be difficult to go along for the ride. "Mindless" applies, and Book of Secrets is more like a tame, endlessly repetitive amusement park ride than a motion picture. I get what this movie is trying to do, but it doesn't work for me. Book of Secrets deserves to be kept closed.

National Treasure: Book of Secrets (United States, 2007)

Director: Jon Turteltaub
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger, Justin Bartha, Ed Harris, Jon Voight, Helen Mirren, Harvey Keitel, Bruce Greenwood
Screenplay: The Wibberleys
Cinematography: John Schwartzman, Amir Mokri
Music: Trevor Rabin
U.S. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 2007-12-21
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1