Map Leads to Secret History Lesson
Imagine pitching the following premise to a movie studio executive: it's an adventure movie where treasure hunters find out that the map to untold riches is on the back of the Declaration of Independence. As it turns out, in addition to being Founding Fathers of the United States of America, our revolutionary heroes held the secret to the location of vast wealth!
Now, who wouldn't give funny looks to the person selling such a plot? I'm beginning to think the writers actually put a similar conversation into the movie. Early on, our hero, Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage), tries to convince government historian Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) that there really is a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. She makes fun of him, and he doesn't blame her for not believing him. But at least he believes in the treasure. My question is: how did the filmmmakers decide they could believe in this goofy story?
I'm sure much better ideas for adventure movies have passed by the movie execs, and yet they made this one. Fine, so the film got made, and once we get past that, at least we can see that the movie is approached in the right way. National Treasure takes itself only seriously enough to move the story. Otherwise, it tries to have fun with itself. It becomes a nice, silly action/adventure, where clues are easily figured out by smart people, coincidences run freely like a river, and the bad guys are behind just enough to generate some harmless suspense.
Perhaps the motivation was to link an adventure flick with some interest in American history. Part of the movie's fun comes from the necessity of the hero to know so much about the facts of the revolutionary figures and their times. There are references to Benjamin Franklin's writings, the history of the Liberty Bell, and even the origins of Wall Street. It seems the filmmakers wanted to make those historical elements seem fascinating while providing an escapist chase movie. I suppose, in that sense, it's a decent effort, although the marriage between action and history lesson isn't entirely smooth, and it does feel like they're stretching more than a few times.
Otherwise, National Treasure's main problem involves the film not trying any harder than it needs to. The action is generally light and each of the new dilemmas and clues are all solved a little too fast (especially by the bad guys). Even the actors feel like they're playing characters they've played before. Cage plays the earnest, passionate, and slightly weary good guy again. Kruger, Helen of Troy herself, gets to be smart too, but she's there mainly to look pretty, which she does. Jon Voight is on board portraying someone's crusty dad once more. Harvey Keitel practically reprises his role from Thelma and Louise as an understanding investigator. And Sean Bean plays the same bad guy he was in Don't Say a Word. Bean must live off these villain performances -- he could do this in his sleep and the paychecks would keep rolling in.
National Treasure moves at a fairly brisk pace until the ending, which slows down a little too much, contains an extremely hard-to-follow action sequence, and drops the fascinating history stuff responsible for holding much of our interest. But, for what it is, this movie isn't bad. I'm still convinced someone wasn't paying attention when the project received a greenlight, so the filmmakers should feel pleased that their movie turned out as passable as it did (and, with its PG rating, as family-accessible as it did). That's more akin to finding twenty bucks on the ground than to discovering hidden treasure, but you learn to take what you can get.
(Released by Walt Disney Pictures and rated "PG" for action violence and some scary images.)
Review also posted on www.windowtothemovies.com.