National Treasure (2004) / Adventure-Action

MPAA Rated: PG for violence
Running Time: 100 min.

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger, Sean Bean, Justin Bartha, Jon Voight, Harvey Keitel, Christopher Plummer
Director: Jon Turteltaub
Screenplay: Cormac Wibberley, Marianne Wibberley
Review published November 21, 2004

I'm not the first person who has compared this very derivative film to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade or in the best-selling novel, "The Da Vinci Code",  but it would be practically impossible to write an informed review without at least acknowledging that the similarities have to be more than just great coincidences.  Regardless, I have learned not to expect anything great from producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Kangaroo Jack, Bad Company), and certainly not screenplay hack-job artists like Cormac and Marianne Wibberley (Bad Boys II, I Spy), whose credentials make me uneasy when attaching the label of "filmmakers" to.  The only real rays of hope come from a fairly decent cast, and a competent director in Jon Turteltaub (Phenomenon, The Kid), responsible for some of the more legitimately thoughtful family-oriented films in the 90s.

Here, Nicolas Cage (Matchstick Men, Adaptation.) plays Ben Gates, who comes from a family line of fortune hunters who have been searching for a treasure hidden by the founding fathers of the United States for generations.  Although clues abound, the next one is the hardest to get -- there is supposed to be an invisible map on the back of the incredibly well-guarded Declaration of Independence.  he plans to "borrow" the Declaration, but a rival group of baddies want it for themselves, forcing Ben to try to get to the treasure first while eluding the law enforcement that will stop at nothing to get the nation's most prized document back.

To be fair, I must declare that I'm of two minds about National Treasure, so I feel the need to split up the review, as I've often done before, so that you can decide for yourself which is most important to you.  After all, one man's trash is another man's "treasure".

The Treasure (aka The Good Stuff)

Nicolas Cage stars in his fourth Jerry Bruckheimer production (after The Rock, Con Air, and Gone in 60 Seconds), and while this is far from his best work as an actor, his presence does offer some credibility to his otherwise wafer-thin character.  Toss in Jon Voight (The Manchurian Candidate, Holes) as the stern, unappreciative father (albeit a rip-off of Sean Connery's portrayal of Henry Jones in The Last Crusade), some welcome eye-candy in Diane Kruger (Troy, Wicker Park), and a thankfully subdued performance by Sean Bean (Equilibrium, Ronin), and National Treasure gets a check in the plus column for a relatively likeable cast. 

It's also a good looking film, as you'd probably expect from Bruckheimer, with quality economical direction by Turteltaub and sumptuous cinematography from Caleb Deschanel (The Patriot, The Hunted).  Nice locale work, top-notch special effects and sound effects, and good work on the sets and costumes, all make this an appealing film, if only on a visceral level.

Falling under the Disney moniker, it's a relatively decent family film, and even if not anything new, it is served well in the role of mindless popcorn movie.

The Trash

Harvey Keitel (Red Dragon, U-571), on a good day, is perhaps the best thespian of the bunch in the cast, but is given the lackluster role of the FBI Agent assigned to get the thieves of the Declaration.  Sure, he does a good job, but seeing him in such a generic role with little range is about as thrilling as going to the home of a world-famous chef and being served cheese and crackers. 

There's no other way to say it - the script is about as dumbed-down as you can get with a premise this high-concept.  It's far more pedestrian than a film with this budget deserves, and once again, Bruckheimer likes his films to be accessible by everyone -- young, old, and the near-comatose.  Even people who don't understand English will be able to follow along without need for subtitles.  With dialogue this corny, it's probably a blessing.

Too many comparisons to better works are begged here, with certain scenes and shots being carbon copies of moments from the Indiana Jones trilogy.  Hopefully, people will forget about this film when the real version of The Da Vinci Code, which features a similar labyrinthine plot around the most famous of treasures, is released.

Lastly, the plot is about as cookie-cutter Hollywood as you can get.  Just once I'd like to see the tag-a-long partner be a frumpy old woman instead of some hot babe, who is forced along for the ride in the most contrived of ways.  As customary, she will be used as a bargaining chip to get the protagonist to comply with the bad guy's wishes from time to time, and her only other real worth is to be able to stick around to have a happy ending. 

The Verdict

National Treasure has its merits for those seeking entertainment so homogenized that it will entertain every member of the family, although probably at the most minimal of levels for some.  It's high-gloss, but completely disposable Hollywood filmmaking that never deviates from the basic formula elements.  For those who have enjoyed every insipid, faux-patriotic, mechanical Bruckheimer production in the past, you'll get more of the same.  For those looking for something worthwhile to do with their movie ticket money, I'd suggest putting that money toward a book, Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code", for a genuinely interesting adventure mixed with fascinating historical perspective.

-- Followed by National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007).

Qwipster's rating:

2004 Vince Leo