The adventurers in National Treasure: Book of Secrets, a sequel to 2004’s blockbuster, are motivated by their sincere love of history and country, plus fidelity toward their cultural and ancestral heritage. But as before, their quarry turns out to be more materialistic in nature: the fabled City of Gold, a North American version of El Dorado built by indigenous peoples and long sought by conquerors and settlers.
It should come as no surprise, even to fans of National Treasure, that the quest to locate this lost treasure bears no relation to Oscar gold. When computer nerd and dispenser of comic nuggets Riley Poole (Justin Bartha) exclaims during the final reel, “It’s a little golden man!,” there’s more than a hint of wink-wink sarcasm. But no other line in The Wibberleys’ script has a double meaning. The movie is such a clinker that Nicolas Cage, Jon Voight and cast addition Helen Mirren should consider giving their gold statues back to the Academy.
Slamming slumming actors is easy, and past work can’t be erased, yet this chunk of faux historical entertainment, crowd-pleasing though it may be, is capable of tarnishing entire careers, although not those of director Jon Turteltaub and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, of course. Their reputations are sealed under a veneer of gold leaf provided by the first installment’s worldwide haul of nearly $350 million. Wasn’t there anything left over for a script upgrade?
The movie begins in 1865 with an incident that enables modern-day Confederate Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris)—armed with pages from John Wilkes Booth’s diary and cohorts that resemble Blackwater mercenaries—to accuse hero Benjamin Franklin Gates’ forbearer Thomas of being complicit in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Naturally, Ben (Cage) will do anything to clear his ancestor’s name.
He and Riley charge off to Paris, then London, the Oval Office, George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, and finally to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Ben’s archivist girlfriend Abigail (Diane Kruger, reprising her role, is the only thing that shimmers on screen) joins the hunt at Buckingham Palace, where one half expects Mirren to appear as Queen Elizabeth II, barging in on Ben and Abigail as they try to unlock a clue from her desk. No such luck. She plays Ben’s mother Emily, a linguistics scholar who can decipher pre-Colombian hieroglyphics and who has been estranged from Ben’s father Patrick (Voight) for decades.
The book of the title is one supposedly passed from U.S. president to president. At Mt. Vernon, Ben kidnaps the sitting POTUS (Bruce Greenwood) to find out where the tome is hidden. None-too-subtly, the inciting clue for the franchise’s third installment has been inserted into page 47. We’ll have to wait to learn what incredible mystery it points toward; no doubt, it’s amenable to being sleuthed with the aid of a primary school history textbook and a laptop.
Forget this outlandish plot’s weak connective tissue—the keys to Fort Knox to anyone who can actually make out what’s going on during the climax. The movie’s two car chases are perfunctory, and no signs of wonder, suspense, or imagination are visible on the actor’s faces. The villain turns out not be villainous, and, because they’re so easily solved, the puzzles aren’t really puzzles. The music swells whenever Ben prattles on about his duty to the past, yet that doesn’t mean an ennobling lesson is being conveyed.
Like its successor, National Treasure: Book of Secrets will probably be a hit because the entire family can see it together. Mirren’s character blames falling in love on the “excitement, adrenaline, and tequila” she and Patrick experienced as young treasure-hunters. Those qualities aren’t in evidence here, so the movie’s success has to be blamed on the fact that lots of gold can be mined using the right demographic tools, regardless of how dull their edges.
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Justin Bartha, Diane Kruger, Jon Voight, Helen Mirren, Ed Harris, Harvey Keitel and Bruce Greenwood
Director: Jon Turteltaub
Screenwriters: The Wibberleys
Producers: Jerry Bruckheimer and Jon Turteltaub
Genre: Action adventure
Rating: PG for some violence and action
Running time: 124 min.
Release date: December 21, 2007