Review: “National Treasure”

Seeing as Brian Grazer & Ron Howard scored the rights to “The Da Vinci Code”, it’s no surprise that Jerry Bruckheimer has essentially tried to do his own version of a Dan Brown novel that changes the background from European religious to American colonial history in order to milk the patriotism angle. The result is “National Treasure”, an archaeological-driven adventure film that wants to be an “Indiana Jones” franchise, but ends up every bit as ludicrous and insipid as the “Tomb Raider” movies.

Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” and its predecessor, the far more exciting and Hollywood-friendly “Angels and Demons”, worked because they made some rather fictional conclusions, and yet backed it all up with detailed research making seem relatively plausible. In essence Brown applied the same trick to the historical adventure genre that Michael Crichton has been doing for years in the techno-thriller realm. “National”, especially in its first act, makes some grandiose claims linking the treasures of the ancient Egyptian & Roman empires with the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, George Washington and the US founding fathers – it’s all rather bold and wild but far from believable let alone credible.

Thus begins the film which follows all too serious puzzle-solving nerd Nicolas Cage, unfunny comic relief sidekick Justin Bartha, the rather flat motor-mouthed love interest Diane Kruger, Cage’s stuck up conservative father played by Jon Voight, wise-old cop Harvey Keitel in pursuit, and a very standard bad guy that it’s almost embarassing that Sean Bean has been stuck with such a role. In fact all four veteran male actors have done far worse movies than this, but I’m hard pressed to remember a time I’ve found their on-screen charisma & presence so straight-jacketed by ultimately flat parts. Even relative newbies like Bartha and Kruger have shown much better work, but when saddled with such a hokey script and run of the mill direction, it does no-one any favours. Cage only comes out of it with minor damage as it’s interesting to see him play a less action hero style role than usual.

Speaking of the script, a drinking game could be made over the words ‘Declaration of Independence’ which, especially during the middle section of the film, are included in almost every sentence each character speaks. The dialogue is atrocious and not just the attempted gags, but the almost laughable attempts at sparking pride whether it be patriotic or paternal. American history buffs might get some enjoyment out of the attempts to re-write history, but even they will be hard pressed not to roll their eyes at scenes such as Cage’s deciphering of the riddle on the Arctic ship or running around Manhattan streets in search of treasure – don’t even get me started on the “Goonies”-esque underground tomb in the last act.

So what does work in this? Well even though it is definitely too long, the pacing for the most part is pretty solid. Bruckheimer and company deliver their usual good quality production design and visual effects. When it’s not relying on lame chases or stunts, it does at least celebrate the Cage character’s intelligence and smarts (however flawed they may be) and tries to combine the admittedly difficult blend of action hero and Holmes-ian detective. It’s also very cool to see one Bruckheimer movie which doesn’t rely on dull as dishwater gunfights and lame macho quips (ie. “Bad Boys II”).

Turtletaub is one of those ‘workable’ directors like Mimi Leder, hardly people who’ll be remembered as big-name helmers let alone visionists, but they do deliver serviceable features nonetheless. He does manage to take the rather yawn-inducing topic of US history (and this isn’t a swipe, believe me Australian history is TEN times more dull) and make it palatable to the masses. At one point in the middle, the film contains an “Entrapment”-style heist sequence which is nicely executed, and again helps kick off the mystery trail.

Given a smarter script with better characterisation, a less silly aim than history’s greatest treasure, and a stronger director this could’ve been a real franchise starter. Instead in the end it’s all rather average. I have to applaud Bruckheimier for doing a movie that tries to rely more on brains, mystery and audience intelligence than delivering another hokey piece of trash like “Bad Boys II” or “Pearl Harbor”. Yet he also deserves criticism for missing the mark again much like he did this Summer with the equally problematic yet enjoyable “King Arthur”. Silly, lightweight fluff you will either dismiss or detest.