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No Sense or Spirit Buried in ‘National Treasure’

by Jeremy Mathews
"National Treasure" falls somewhere between an ad for bottled water and a movie.

“National Treasure”
Walt Disney Pictures
Directed by Jon Turteltaub
Written by Jim Kouf, Cormac Wibberley and Marianne Wibberley
Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Jon Turteltaub
Starring Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger, Justin Bartha, Sean Bean, Jon Voight, Harvey Keitel and Christopher Plummer
Rated PG

(out of four)

Incomprehensible clue, historical explanation, unlikely solution, chase/action/danger scene, unlikely escape, repeat until 135 minutes have lapsed. This is the recipe for “National Treasure,” which overstays any welcome its occasional charm might earn by a solid hour. Even after you overcome the preposterous premise and its silly execution, the film has no propulsion. As much as I’d like to be engrossed in a hunt for a Masonic treasure revealed by the hidden messages on the back of the Declaration of Independence, the action is mediocre and the characters tired.

The film begins as an old man, John Adams Gates (Christopher Plummer), tells his grandson about the largest treasure ever amassed—by many greedy rulers of grand civilizations—which eventually fell into the hands of the Knights of the Free Masons, who believed it was too valuable for one person and hid it so no one could use it. Some of the U.S. founding fathers were Free Masons, and Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, gave John’s grandfather’s grandfather the only surviving clue to the treasure's location. The secret is with Charlotte, it says, but nobody knows what that means.

Now, the boy has grown into Nicolas Cage as Ben Franklin Gates, whose family has long been ridiculed in the historic community for its crazy treasure theories. But he’s out in the Arctic with a sinister rich dude named Ian (Sean Bean) who is obviously planning to pocket the treasure and will become the villain within 10 minutes—he already has his henchmen. But he won’t show his evil until they dig up an old ship, nameplate first, called The Charlotte. Also with the group, but on Ben’s side of good, is a techno geek named Riley (Justin Bartha), who has the same noble intentions as Ben but provides more comic relief.

After Ben quickly concludes that an old ivory pipe secretly says that the back of the Declaration of Independence leads to the treasure, Ian leaves him and Riley for dead to go steal it. Ben, of course, has to steal it before Ian to save it.

First, however, they meet the female member of their team when they try to warn a preservationist at the National Archives of the robbery. Abigail (Diane Kruger) is introduced in the film’s best scene, in which Ben describes the plot of the film to her and she looks at him like he’s crazy. She’s unavoidably swept up into the action as the theft concludes, and joins the fun for the rest of the movie.

Other cast members include Harvey Keitel as a police inspector who wishes he were Tommy Lee Jones’s character from “The Fugitive,” and Jon Voight as Ben’s father Patrick, who has lost his belief in the treasure and has to relearn the excitement of deciphering nonsensical clues.

Ben’s family has supposedly been ridiculed for its search for the treasure for many generations, and his father has lost the spirit because he grew tired of clue after clue for 20 years and believes that the treasure doesn’t exist. But the film actually indicates that he didn’t decode a single damn clue for those 20 years. The Charlotte nonsense was the only clue they had, and Ben was the first one to discover that it was a ship. So really, his dad should immediately be on board since there really is a Charlotte.

Equally confused is the relationship between Ben and Abigail. Romance is occasionally implied, but there is little effort to make a relationship desirable. Is a little sexual tension too much to ask of an on-screen couple?

I appreciated that the main characters are all geeks who don’t use guns and don’t go for fights since they would quickly lose. Instead, they rely on their selective and improbable wits to keep them safe. They do, however, still have the ability to do high-level Hollywood stunts, hanging and jumping off various objects. Of course, if the action scenes were on par with the Indiana Jones movies, all the flaws could be forgiven. But this film is all James Wilson and no Ben Franklin.

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