Treasure hunts can be exciting and fun in real life, one supposes, and they can certainly be so on the screen–you need only think of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the ultimate treasure-hunt movie, to prove the point. But searching for long-lost secrets and riches can also go terribly awry, in pictures as well as in actual experience, as this obvious attempt to recapture the magic of the Lucas-Spielberg classic, but this time in modern dress, proves decisively. “National Treasure” is akin to “Raiders” in resembling a 1940s serial, but departs from it in remaining as puerile and instantly forgettable as most of them were. It’s less Indiana Jones than Lara Croft–and that heroine’s terrible first movie, not the superior second one.
The intrepid hero this time around is Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage), the latest in a long line of family members (among them granddaddy Christopher Plummer and daddy Jon Voight) who have devoted their lives to deciphering clues that will lead to the discovery of a vast treasure-trove collected over the centuries by members of secret societies and eventually hidden away by the U.S. Founding Fathers, its last known guardians. Initially Gates is in league with Ian Howe (Sean Bean), who’s apparently some sort of all-powerful international magnate, but a tiff between them in the Antarctic makes them rivals. Eventually our hero teams up with Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), a pretty official from the Smithsonian, and Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), the obligatory geeky electronics wiz, to find the solution to the puzzle before the evil Howe does.
The specifics of the “National Treasure” scenario are, of course, ludicrous. The accumulation and handing down of the treasure is supposed to have something to with both the Knights Templar and the Freemasons (the group to which the Founding Fathers belonged), and the clues along the way include a pipe found hidden in the icebound wreckage of a colonial ship, a pair of glasses designed by Ben Franklin, a bunch of letters published pseudonymously by Franklin, the Liberty Bell, and the Declaration of Independence (on the back of which is to be found both a hidden set of cipher instructions and a map). Following the trail inevitably involves engaging in lots of shady behavior (including stealing the original Declaration from the Smithsonian in one of those elaborate heist sequences that was doubtlessly more interesting to choreograph than it is to watch) and sneaking about in plenty of dark, sinister places (like caverns beneath Wall and Broadway streets in New York City). The absurdity of it all is palpable, but in a picture like this it’s not realism or logic that’s important–it’s the delivery. In “Raiders,” for instance, the material was nonsense, but it was delivered with panache, and silly as it was, it conveyed a sense of joy and exuberance that made it virtually irresistible. Here what we get is a mixture of forced jollity and mindless desperation. Lots of energy and expense have obviously been lavished on the set pieces, but they come across as more dogged than engaging; there’s nothing that deadens the effect of action-oriented fluff than a sense that the makers are merely going through the motions and we’re just being taken along for a by-the-numbers ride. That’s the feeling you’re likely to have watching “National Treasure.” A further, fatal problem lies in the nature of the treasure itself. In a story like this, there needs to be the exhilaration of discovery at the close–the sense that all the chasing about was worth it. Here when the loot is uncovered, it’s basically just a collection of museum-ready artifacts of no great mystery or power–the only item specifically mentioned are scrolls from the Library at Alexandria. One might expect that there would at least be something in the mix that would have some resonance for American history, but there isn’t; and the effect is deflating when the MacGuffin turns out to be so negligible. The disappointing nature of the treasure also exacerbates the frustration of the picture’s many false endings–it has more climaxes than a porno movie–and despite director John Turteltaub’s efforts to move things along, it extends to well over two hours. Under the circumstances it’s no wonder that Trevor Rabin’s score works overtime in a vain attempt to maintain the illusion of breathless motion, but its insistent, non-stop throbbing and periodic bursts of brass become just another irritant over the long haul.
The cast certainly don’t mitigate the sense of draggy deja-vu. Cage offers a performance that’s a virtual compilation of the tics and mannerisms he’s displayed in previous pictures, and never convinces us that Gates is the charming rogue he’s meant to be. Kruger makes a cooly attractive but very stiff romantic interest; the little addendum to the script explaining her accent is an unfortunate necessity. Bartha has the deadpan nerdiness act down pat and gets a few laughs with it, but even he gets tiresome after awhile. As for Voight, he appears to be developing a cottage industry in playing the fathers of intrepid adventures; he was also Angelina Jolie’s papa in the Lara Croft flicks. And Harvey Keitel pops up as the FBI agent leading the effort to get back the Declaration; his initial appearance in so uncharacteristic a role is enough to elicit a chuckle, but afterwards his performance amounts to little more than trying to maintain a straight face while delivering standard cop cliches and keeping his tie straight. But the really deadening influence here is Bean. A picture like this needs a strong villain, a seductive character played by an actor with some real charisma. Bean has none–nor do the bevy of menacing types who play his standard-issue henchmen.
“National Treasure” has the typical Bruckheimer technical slickness (you can hardly go wrong with cinematographer Caleb Deschanel), but in this case a glossy finish can’t hide its B-movie origins. This is one scavenger hunt that’s definitely not worth playing.