This story--and various versions of the script--has been bouncing around Hollywood for years. It was so brazenly preposterous that I never dreamed anyone would make an actual movie out of it. Enter producer Jerry Bruckheimer for whom brazen preposterousness is more than just a way of life it's a higher calling. Add a dollop of Raiders of the Lost Ark and a nearly litigious dose of The Da Vinci Code and voila: it's a kiddie-friendly action-adventure.
There's a treasure map written in invisible ink on the verso of the Declaration of Independence. That's right the one that's hanging in Washington D.C. surrounded by an entire phalanx of Homeland Security agents who would shoot a jaywalker on sight. So of course it must be stolen by treasure hunter Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) and his wisecracking sidekick Riley (Justin Bartha) along with the initially reluctant archivist (Diane Kruger)--you know that old chestnut. The map is thought to lead to the fabulous treasures of the Knights Templar war spoils from the Crusades that have been handed down from the Knights to the Freemasons several of whom were Founding Fathers who wrote the very Declaration itself. Coincidence? I think not.
We learn all of this in an opening exposition that could be one of the most monotonous ever filmed. Remember the scene where Indiana Jones draws the Ark of the Covenant on the chalkboard and eloquently outlines the whole movie in a few riveting lines? This is like that except about 15 minutes longer and nearly devoid of a pulse. Then for the stalwart few that can make it that far the convoluted--though often entertaining--chase is on.
As he did with the equally ludicrous Con Air Bruckheimer collects an ensemble of overpowering talent who are then distractingly miscast. Christopher Plummer plays Ben's grandfather and Jon Voight plays his father even though the two men were born 11 years apart! Harvey Keitel as the FBI agent on the case plays it straight which seems a waste given it's Keitel and Sean Bean plays the bad guy with the funny accent. Bartha fares better in comic relief and Kruger is well blonde.
I know he's got bills to pay and ex-wives to feed but the action hero phase of Cage's career has lasted far longer than is really necessary. Ever since Face/Off Cage has maintained a Travolta-esque pace of cashing $20 million paychecks for mediocre action movies. He's neither as wildly over-the-top here as he was in Con Air nor as understated as he was in Windtalkers. But he is interesting and as always watchable. If anything he oversells the geek in Ben Gates and plays it too straight like Keitel. We certainly get that he's not the most socially adept treasure hunter out there because Indiana Jones never looked or acted like this.
Jon Turteltaub is a veteran of studio hack work (3 Ninjas Phenomenon) and he adds no more distinctiveness to National Treasure than a plumber installing a faucet. But let's face it the star and director of this project is Bruckheimer. And it's become fairly obvious that he's lost touch with his audience. Pearl Harbor and Armageddon were misguided but at least they had plausible points of departure. National Treasure represents a hubristic effort to impose the Bruckheimer aesthetic on the least likely source material possible--and the guilty pleasure is gone. The legend of the Templars is fascinating and the historical tidbits on display here are "good for kids" in that most obvious of ways but this do-gooder Bruckheimer is an oxymoron that has little chance of success. Although I'd love to see him try Schoolhouse Rock replete with his beloved explosions.
Calvin Cambridge (played by Bow Wow) is a likeable 14-year-old kid who lives at the Chesterfield Group Home orphanage. He has two aspirations in life: One is to be adopted by a loving family modeled after the Banks from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and the other is to be a basketball player. Hope arrives in the form of an old pair of Nikes that Sister Theresa (played by Anne Meara) brings in a shipment of Salvation Army goodies adorned with the faded initials "M.J. " which Calvin assumes stands for basketball legend Michael Jordan. But the shoes go through an ordeal of their own before Calvin can get them on his feet: Bullies take the sneakers from him and throw them over some power lines where they are struck by lightning. Suddenly Calvin finds he is able to make 30-foot jump shots on the orphanage court. His newfound talent gets him recruited by the embattled Los Angeles Knights who see Calvin as a new gimmick to fill empty stadium seats. While Calvin is enamored by all the perks that come with playing for the NBA the sport cannot satisfy his need for a loving family.
The soft-spoken Bow Wow (All About the Benjamins) tugs at every heartstring in Like Mike with viewers subject to many close-ups of his tear-stained cheeks. His performance is mediocre--in some scenes you can almost see him taking orders from the director--but Bow Wow has enough character and sincerity to pull it off. He's content in the spotlight which is not surprising considering he has been practically preened for it since birth. Morris Chestnut (Two Can Play That Game) plays Tracey Reynolds a slick NBA player who is assigned to be Calvin's mentor. Morris is completely at ease playing the flashy athlete with a soft side and he gives the relationship between Tracey and Calvin a certain air of sweetness. Crispin Glover plays Calvin's evil guardian Stan Bittleman but his performance isn't up to par with his past roles including the time he almost kicked David Letterman in the head while taping Late Night. Jonathan Lipnicki (Jerry Maguire) and Brenda Song (Requiem) play Calvin's loyal orphanage buds and they do so without being too smart-alecky. Cameo appearances by NBA stars Allen Iverson Gary Payton Vince Carter and Chris Webber (among others) add to the film's authenticity.
Like Mike plays out more like an after-school special than a feature film; it's formulaic and relies heavily on one gimmick after another. With the film light on laughs but heavy on sentiment director John Schultz (Drive Me Crazy) makes sure every bit of sap is extracted from scribe Michael Elliot's (Carmen: A Hip Hopera) script making the film less challenging for adult viewers. The kids for example live in a '50s-style orphanage where prospective parents file in and look for children to adopt like puppies in a store window. (They always pick the young ones the older children lament.) But children no doubt will feel for the 4-foot-8-inch Calvin as he slam-dunks the ball into the hoop and dangles from it his little legs flailing in the air. And this cutesy package of a film comes complete with a moral at the end of the story when the vertically challenged hero learns a valuable lesson about facing up to one's fears.