Despite its obvious desire to be a Generic Summer Blockbuster, “National Treasure” has only one huge explosion, a single brief car chase, and just a smattering of gunfire. This restraint goes a long way, actually; the film isn’t as loud or annoying as most of its bombastic blockbuster brethren. It’s not any smarter than those movies, either, though, and releasing it in November instead of July does nothing to convince me otherwise. It’s fun and occasionally amusing and it didn’t give me a headache. That’s not the sort of endorsement that gets you quoted in the ads, but it’s the best I can muster.
If you have read “The Da Vinci Code,” you already know the basic plot of “National Treasure.” The series of hidden clues and secret-society skulduggery has been confined specifically to America rather than all over Europe, but the premise is the same: Indiana Jones-ish historians and treasure-hunters go in search of a legendary mass of wealth (not the Holy Grail, but a big pile of gold and artifacts), led by clues that the Founding Fathers hid in plain sight in such locations as the Declaration of Independence.
Nicolas Cage, doing his mildly insane shtick that entertained us in such large, dumb movies as “Con Air,” “Face/Off” and “The Rock,” plays Benjamin Franklin Gates, a man whose life-long passion has been tracking down some treasure that supposedly changed hands constantly before finally being secreted somewhere by colonial Americans. The Masons are involved, and the Knights Templar, and of course Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Declaration-signers.
Ben comes to believe that there is a map hidden on the back of the Declaration of Independence, a belief that is met with great skepticism by National Archives director Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), who has actually SEEN the back of the Declaration and knows there’s no map on it. Ah, but it might have been written invisible ink, Ben says. Abigail is unmoved.
The problem is that Ben isn’t the only one privy to this information. His former associate Ian Howe (Sean Bean), who we knew right away would turn out to be a bad guy because he has a British accent, wants the treasure map, too, and unlike Ben, he doesn’t care if he has to destroy the Declaration to get it. (Lousy Brits never really took that document seriously in the first place, you know.) Ian plans to steal it from the National Archives, but since everyone thinks that’s impossible, no one cares when Ben warns them. Ben’s plan? To steal it first, thus protecting the document from Ian and also giving himself a chance to look for the invisible map on the back of it.
If “The Da Vinci Code” is the best book you’ve ever read, then I suppose “National Treasure” will be your favorite movie, too. They both feature highly complicated, rather clever plots, woven into a story brimming with stupid dialogue. “National Treasure,” directed with zealous energy by Jon Turteltaub (“Phenomenon,” “Cool Runnings”), is very smart at its core, even a little educational — do you know the name of the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, or how Manhattan’s central thoroughfare came to be called “Broadway”? — but it wears the clothes of an absurd Jerry Bruckheimer production.
Perhaps there is some acknowledgment that the basic premise of hidden clues pointing to an unimaginable cache of treasure is pure fantasy, and that no matter how much real history it’s couched in, it’s still going to be a little silly when you think about it. Which is why the movie encourages you, and I also encourage you, not to think about it. Cage is fun, and Justin Bartha gets off a few good one-liners as his wise-cracking, history-ignorant partner. There is a startling lack of imagination in places — Ben’s obligatory romance with Abigail, the fact that here is perhaps the one-millionth British character in a movie to be named “Ian” — but don’t focus on that. Focus on the fast-paced, appealingly goofy narrative, and dream about what YOU would do with all that treasure.
B- (2 hrs., 5 min.; )