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.