A film review by Craig J. Koban
2004, PG, 100 mins.
2004, PG, 100 mins.
Nicolas Cage / Sadusky: Harvey Keitel / Patrick Gates:
Jon Voight / Abigail Chase: Diane Kruger / Ian Howe: Sean Bean
/ Riley Poole: Justin Bartha / Shaw: David Dayan Fisher / John Adams Gates: Christopher Plummer
Okay, how about a joke to lighten the mood of this review?
Hey, did you hear the one about the spirited and highly determined American treasure hunter?
ou know, it involves him looking for a long lost treasure that began in the Middle East and was eventually protected by the Knights of the Templar and Masons (the latter that was made up of Founding Fathers of the United States) and was then hidden for many centuries. Then, inexplicably, the pesky and cunning treasure hunter follows a series of clues so inane and implausible that it subsequently, and amazingly, leads him to a “national treasure” that has remained dormant, completely untouched or discovered, for centuries, under a church in a prominent US city.
Waiting for the punch line? Well there is none. This is no joke, this is NATIONAL TREASURE.
Now, let me be the first to admit, as I have done in countless reviews before, that I am a real sucker for escapist entertainments. As a matter of fact, I think that some of the finest films of the last century embrace the fantastical and extraordinary. I think that a great escapist adventure yarn succeeds by luring you in, keeping you and grounding you in its universe and world for two solid hours and never let’s go. I am willing to have definite flights of fancy with common sense at the movies, as they are entertainment after all. Yes, I am willing to believe in galaxies far, far away. Yes, I am willing to believe in grown, beefy men in tights that can either fly or shoot spider webs from their wrists. Yes, I am willing to believe that a globetrotting archaeologist is desperately trying to beat the Nazis to find the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail. Really, I am.
Unfortunately, I completely had no faith in the premise of NATIONAL TREASURE, which embraces absurdity and complete implausibility like they were virtues. The phrase “tall tale” is even too kind when referring to TREASURE. It completely fails at allowing my buy-in and, much like the recent thriller THE VILLAGE, once it establishes that its premise is completely and utterly improbable, then it makes the rest of the film incredibly difficult to invest in. NATIONAL TREASURE feels like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK meets THE DA VINCI CODE for the intellectually challenged.
This is an embarrassingly awful film. The laundry list of events and incidents that this film has to dish out border on miraculous, if not completely idiotic. The film makes the catastrophic error of firmly establishing its basic premise first and foremost and after the first few minutes of plodding and sluggish exposition, it’s entirely all downhill from there. We are, from the very beginning of this film, forced to believe that, yes, a vast and expansive treasure made up of many civilizations was protected by the Knights of the Templar and then subsequently protected by the Masons, who in this case were the Founding Fathers (funny, in the course of achieving my absorbingly overpriced degree in American History, I never once came across any research that even remotely hinted at these men hiding anything, but I digress). Then we are also forced to believe that these Founding Fathers, who were beyond proactive in their thinking, got help from Charles Carroll (the last surviving member of the signers of the Declaration of Independence) to pass on clues that would lead future generations to find the treasure. Yup, sure, uh-huh.
Oh, that treasure was hidden in such a way to further provide clues that are so broad, so convoluted, so insane, and so absurd in their very construction and invention that it’s just to dang hard to believe that any Founding Father from the late 18TH Century would ever believe that any modern man would follow them and track down the riches. The clues themselves seem miracles of intuitiveness, not to mention that it’s astounding to believe that such a treasure remained untouched for centuries. I mean…c’mon, at the risk of sounding like a simpleton, this is not just dumb, but spectacularly dumb!
The film opens with one of those convenient scenes that are needed to really explain the treasure that will be sought after by all parties involved. In 1974 John Adams Gates (played by Christopher Plummer, who carries the outrageous material to dramatic heights only attainable by a gifted actor), explains to his grandson Benjamin Franklin Gates of the whole story of the National Treasure. John gives Ban a secret clue (the one handed down to generations by Charles Carroll) to set him off on his life-long pursuit, but Ben’s father Patrick Henry (played here by another wasted Oscar Winner – Jon Voight) scoffs at both his father and his son for even considering the insanity of the treasure’s existence. Hmmm…who could blame him?
Anyway, faster than you can say “John Hancock”, the film time shifts to the present day to the Arctic Circle which leads the adult Ben (played here by yet another wasted Oscar winner – Nicolas Cage) in search of a 19TH Century sailing ship. You see, the clue his grandfather gave him as a boy also leads him here, so to speak. He assumes that the ship must have frozen in the ice and then made its way inland by the ice flows (yup, sure, uh-huh). The crew finds the ship with startling ease with what seems to be metal detectors and nothing else. The reveal of the ship provides for one of the film’s most unintentional laughs (if not groans) – Ben wipes away a few inches of snow to reveal a ship’s crest that says “Charlotte” (yup, sure, uh-huh).
Ben eventually finds more clues on the ship (which, despite the fact that it's been buried under ice and snow for a century, is in wonderfully preserved shape) and finds a crucial one being guarded by the corpse of the captain (how Ben knows that the skeleton is the captain is beyond me). Now, get this, the clues themselves lead Ben to believe that the map to the actually treasure may be written with invisible ink (yup, sure, uh-huh) on the actually Declaration of Independence itself! Ben has one of those convenient “of course!” moments, because, honestly, what better guarded place to have a treasure map than on the protected document, which is guarded better than a Las Vegas Casino at The National Archives in Washington. However, the film quickly supplies a cardboard cutout villain in the form of Sean Bean, who betrays Ben at the Artic and vows to steal the Declaration himself.
Now, here’s where things get even more bizarre, if that's possible. Ben feels it's his civic duty, I guess, to steal the Declaration of Independence himself before the bad guys do, never for once realizing that it will probably cost him a life in prison without any possibility of parole. Needless to say, in a plan of remarkable hast and complexity, Ben manages to steal the Declaration from its vacuum-sealed vault. Fortunately for him, he is eventually befriended by a National Archivist named Abigail (Diane Kruger, probably the best looking National Archivist ever). She befriends him maybe a little hastily for my tastes, as she really becomes an accomplice to the shenanigans. They do get the Declaration and do what any zealot and obsessive treasure hunters would to reveal the code – sprinkle it with lemon juice and breath heavily on it. I would have tried something with a higher citric acid content like soda pop or with more flavor like Orange Tang, but never mind.
Anyway, Bean and a plucky police detective (played by yet another wasted Oscar nominee – Harvey Keitel) are hot on the track of the heroes. The lemon juice induced treasure map that is revealed further leads Ben and his babe archivist through a series of other moronic clues that involves finding some 18TH Century 3-D glasses (gee, never knew the Founding Fathers had those either) which allows further clues to be read in code on the map. Oh, the heroes also manage to make a pit stop at a retail store for more comfortable clothes, an insane move considering that they are now wanted by the FBI and CIA and could be spotted anywhere. I love how heroes that are wanted by the most powerful government in the free world stroll around in public and escape apprehension. Nevertheless, the clues all add up to their final destination – a collapsing mine shaft beneath a church tomb - that is so big that it never being discovered in the initial city planning for buildings is also beyond me. Even more amazing is the fact that the pulleys for the mine cars still work. Yes, at the risk of spoiling the film, they do find the treasure and live happily ever after.
NATIONAL TREASURE is such a festering and nauseatingly silly film, and a prime exercise in taking talented actors – some of the best of their generations – and given them nothing of substance to do, therefore embarrassing them for two hours. Keitel has never looked more bored and is on autopilot in the film, and Voight’s participation sort of precludes his desperation for a paycheck. Cage himself is also far too diluted in the film, and he never once had me convinced that his character was himself convinced that a treasure existed or that the series of incredible clues would lead him to it. Maybe some of Cage’s trademark zeal and exuberance could have lifted the film a bit, but here he’s completely lacking in his nominal edge or charisma, which is in itself kind of a shame. Bean himself is on dastardly villain mode, Kruger is on full eye-candy mode, and the rest of the plot is clearly on full intellectually vacant mode.
There is no doubt that NATIONAL TREASURE is another entry on Jerry Bruckheimer’s producing resume, as his hands seem all over this one. It has car chases, explosions, woefully inept and bad dialogue, as well as stock characters that fail to generate interest and a story that is as incredulous as they get. I have rarely seen such a disbelieving piece of popcorn entertainment. The picture has a premise that can't tread through even the shallowest of narrative waters and it stretches it out to the inhuman length of 132 minutes. The main failing of the film is in its downright farcical tone that is an assault on good, noble, and decent common sense.
And who would have thought that the Founding Fathers were actually masons that were hording the “world’s treasure” right under Wall Street? What are the odds?