Movie Review - National Treasure: Book of Secrets
By Matthew Huntley
January 17, 2008
The original National Treasure (2004) was a goofy, cornballish action adventure. It was silly, fun and safe enough to please the entire family. I remember liking it on sort of a dumb level. National Treasure: Book of Secrets is everything I just wrote, only less. This time around, the convoluted plot becomes a liability instead of an asset, and by the end, I grew tired and a little impatient, despite how "un-seriously" I was supposed to take it.
Nicolas Cage and the rest of the primary cast return as treasure-seekers who decipher clues related to American history. It's obvious the studio hasn't skimped on this sequel's budget as the sets are bigger, the locations are grander, and the actors' salaries have likely gone up to ensure a stable franchise for the future. But amidst the higher production values, it's the storytelling that seems to have been taken for granted.
Whenever the characters reach a new destination, the scene felt like it was racing to end just so the next one could begin. Marianne and Cormac Wibberly's screenplay, from a story by at least three other writers, isn't very complicated, but it's filmed and pieced together with such a hyper sense of urgency. This movie never stops to take a breath, and the characters finish each other's lines just so the plot can speed along. Granted, it's not terribly hard to follow, but it would have been nice if the movie had slowed down so we were allowed enough time to enjoy it.
At a Civil War seminar, a black market dealer named Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) brings forth evidence that suggests Benjamin Gates' (Cage) great-great-grandfather was directly involved in the conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln. Ben tells the story a different way, and says his grandfather was asked by John Wilkes Booth to decode a cipher that would lead to a buried treasure, not kill President Lincoln. In order to clear his family name, Ben must prove the treasure really exists.
That's really the long and short of the plot. Along with his father Patrick (Jon Voight), his pal Riley (Justin Bartha) and now ex-girlfriend Abigail (Diane Kruger), Ben finds his way to Paris, London, Washington, and South Dakota, among other places, seeking clues to find the lost Native American City of Gold called Cibola. It's funny how none of the characters ever appear jet-lagged from traveling around so much.
I know, I know, I'm supposed to allow the movie its premise, and I do, it's just that I wish one or two of the big-clue sequences had been scratched to allow more time for the characters to simply talk and interact. After all, they're likable, attractive people and I wanted to know more about them. For instance, Ben and Abigail are now an ex-couple, but I never quite got the full gist of their relationship. I wanted more time with them away from the plot, which is always driving the picture.
Director Jon Turteltaub and editors William Goldenberg and David Rennie make so many cuts that I felt like I was placed inside a circle surrounded by the filmmakers, with each one tugging at me and telling me what was going to happen, all so anxious and excited to fill me in. The plot thankfully doesn't jerk the audience around, and it was kind of fun to follow it, but because it's so determined to get to its perfunctory conclusion, I didn't care about it all that much.
Sure, it was neat to think there could actually be a presidential "Book of Secrets" in the Library of Congress, which contains America's deepest, darkest secrets, and I liked Helen Mirren as Ben's mother, who's asked to decode some glyphs taken from Buckingham Palace and the Oval Office (Mirren brings a touch of class to this otherwise fluffy film), but I got no real sense of rush out of it, no matter how fast it seemed to move.
The ending is also a letdown because it more or less rehashes the ending of the first "National Treasure." All the characters conveniently find themselves in a deep cave where one character's decision to become a martyr is rather hokey.
For the next National Treasure movie (and there will be another one), I'd like to see Ben Gates and his posse tackle a new adventure that doesn't involve American history. The filmmakers should change it up a bit, and allow the characters to react to their dilemmas in ways that don't make them so cartoonish and exist simply for the sake of the plot. In the Indiana Jones pictures, from which these movies undoubtedly derive, we felt we really got to know Indiana Jones and the supporting players. We paid more attention to them and their behavior and less about the plots. People are just more fulfilling than events.
If you were to see National Treasure: Book of Secrets, you wouldn't be seeing a bad movie, but you wouldn't be seeing a very good one, either. We all know the point of a movie like this is to leave a silly smile on your face, but this one only really makes you shrug.