January 1, 2008

National Treasure 2: Book Of Secrets (01/01/08)

Lettergrade: C

After a steady diet of award season contenders, we were in the mood for a so-bad-its-funny piece of junk that would run no risk of garnering any Golden Globe and/or Oscar nominations. As such, it would be ingenuine of me to harshly assail National Treasure 2: Book Of Secrets for being ridiculous, poorly written and utterly implausible, when in fact I bought the ticket hoping for those very qualities. I will say, however, that in spite of having our meager expectations pretty much met, we were a little disappointed all the same: The movie, while entertaining, wasn't quite bad enough to match the hilarity of several other recent shitbombs I could name, including Nicolas Cage's own Ghost Rider.

What's left is a moderately enjoyable, but pretty much by-the-numbers action-adventure story which kinda cross-breeds Raiders Of The Lost Ark with The Da Vinci Code, all dressed in the trappings of an 8th grade American History report. I can't say there's a lot of tension because there isn't much. I can't say that movie has surprises in store because it really doesn't. It does hold one's attention, at least, and if nothing else offers a few nuggets of vital trivia which may well come in useful if you happen to wind up on Jeopardy! some day.

I will now attempt to describe the plot. Academy Award® winner Nicolas Cage plays Benjamin Franklin Gates, the latest in a long line of treasure hunters whose first and middle names are those of significant U.S. historical figures. In the first movie, Ben and his father (Patrick Henry Gates, played by Academy Award® winner Jon Voight) made use of clues left by the American Founding Fathers on our money and within our national monuments to track down a metric fuck-ton of gold that the Masons brought to the U.S. during the Revolution. Along the way, they had to steal the Declaration of Independence, break into several historical landmarks, and make use of various science-fictiony "artifacts" supposedly designed by the actual Ben Franklin among others.

National Treasure 2: Book Of Secrets is pretty much the same movie. The picture opens with a new character, Academy Award® nominee Ed Harris (who sports a villainous southern accent), unveiling a page from John Wilkes Booth's diary which suggests that Cage and Voight's ancestor (Thomas Jefferson Gates) was a co-conspirator of the Lincoln assassination. Cage can't stand to have the Gates family name sullied like that, and upon analyzing the journal page, discovers a code that leads to a map that will supposedly lead to a lost city of gold somewhere in the U.S. It's unclear how, but following the clues and unearthing this treasure will apparently prove that Thomas Jefferson Gates had nothing to do with Lincoln getting shot.

In addition to Harris, new cast members include Academy Award® winner Helen Mirren as Cage's mom, who conveniently is one of only 4 or 5 people in the world who can translate some ancient writing at a key point in the film. Justin Bartha returns from the first picture as Cage's wise-crackin' side-kick Riley Poole, who can magically circumvent the security system at Buckingham Palace using an iPod and Windows Vista. Bartha had only appeared in two other movies during the three year divide between National Treasures 1 and 2 and there's a good reason for that. Also, Diane Kruger (who I was convinced was actually Jennifer Jason Leigh in the first movie until I read the end credits) is back as the sort-of German chick who works in government in some capacity, and is now Cage's ex-girlfriend. Academy Award® nominee Harvey Keitel likewise reprises his role of the FBI agent charged with bringing Cage in.

Like in the first movie, Cage and his entourage repeatedly break into impossible situations with little to no preparation, and instantly solve puzzles that the greatest minds of our nation's history have been unable to crack. Having Cage play a character who we can therefore presume to be the smartest man on the planet is pushing it already, but what the hell. Despite the absence of credibility, I didn't find much about the movie terribly offensive, and again I will say that if you walk into a picture like this, you cannot be upset when the level of intellect turns out to be pretty much what you were expecting.

My few complaints revolve around the insufficient set-up for pretty much all the elements of the picture; characters, settings, and situations alike. The whole thing is shot and edited fairly traditionally, but paced so briskly that its hard to grasp the implications of the latest decoded clue or what the goal of the current action vignette might be at times. Director Jon Turteltaub and his screenwriters (credited as "The Wibberleys") may have had an explanation for how the lost city of gold does indeed connect with Lincoln's assassination, for example, but I, an astute movie goer, failed to pick up on what it might be.

Also, as in the first National Treasure, a secret society managed to get a shit-load of gold to some hidden location in the U.S. without anyone really finding out about it. More power to them, I guess, but my question is why wouldn't the Founding Fathers have used that money to help the fledgling nation pay for the war and get on its feet?

And while we're at it, there are a couple instances in the movie where Cage is approached on the street by a total stranger and lambasted for being the descendant of someone who helped plan Lincoln's death. Um... now that Abe has been dead for 140 years or so would the nation at large really give a frog's fat-ass about whom helped plan the assassination and for what reasons? I mean, I guess it's interesting on a historical level, but I suspect that if such news were really to surface, it would be a mere footnote along the lines of Thomas Jefferson having fathered slave children or Eleanor Roosevelt secretly having a dick, rather than something that would enrage the general public. And how the hell do random people on the street know who Cage is anyway?

Back in 2004, when the first National Treasure came out, my line on it was that it looked pretty much like The Da Vinci Code, but really stupid. This was, of course, two years before the Da Vinci Code movie starring Tom Hanks came out and proved to be a much worse movie than National Treasure was. As for how the new one stacks up... well, I still think it's somewhere between the two. I mean, it's not as artfully made as parts of The Da Vinci Code were, but at least its a little more up-front about the fact that it's shit.

One last thing: My wife found the advertisements for this picture somewhat unsettling, largely because Nicolas Cage has no sideburns in any of them and therefore appears to be wearing a toupee of the Moe Howard variety. If you watch closely throughout the film itself, you'll see that Cage does, in fact, have side-burns in some select scenes, but whether or not this is a clue to the on-goings of National Treasure 3, I cannot say.

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