The film wastes no time in manifesting its shortcomings, either. Operating on the belief that audiences need to be body-slammed with exposition before being properly introduced to their main characters, the filmmakers begin with a 1974 prologue in which a young Benjamin Franklin Gates (Hunter Gomez) is schooled by his eccentric gramps (Christopher Plummer) in the family's multi-generational obsession with the legendary treasure of the Temple of Solomon. As legend has it, the treasure was initially seized from the Temple during the First Crusade by the Knights Templar, eventually finding its way through the centuries into the hands of some early American Freemasons with close ties to the Founding Fathers. They, in turn, shimmied it away somewhere, leaving only an elaborate series of clues and riddles with which to bewilder and annoy unsuspecting latter-day filmgoers.
Manifesting wits and determination far beyond those of his forbears, the adult Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) is now hotly accumulating the necessary clues to track down the elusive Solomonic riches. Unfortunately, his talent for judging character is far less formidable, nearly securing himself and cohort Riley (Justin Bartha) an early exit from mortality when another colleague named Ian Howe (Sean Bean) mutinies and tries to kill them. From then forward, it's a race to see who can finally collect and decipher the remaining pieces of the puzzle. The only hitch is that the lynchpin, the apparent map itself, was written in invisible ink on the reverse side of the heavily-guarded Declaration of Independence.
Apart from some fairly tense set pieces -- the theft of the Declaration is probably the film's best sequence -- everything about the film feels as though the makers were more interested in laying the groundwork for a video game or a theme park ride than telling a story or developing interesting characters. Unlike "Raiders of the Lost Ark," which the movie desperately tries to emulate, the characters in "National Treasure" are forever at the mercy of the writers' elaborate, mechanical goose chase. However much fun the various scribes may have had in constructing the mystery and piling on the clues, it simply doesn't translate into a credible narrative framework. Though Gates' grumpy, skeptical father, Patrick (Jon Voight) is meant to be the voice of defeatism, his growing frustration with the endless stream of clues often make him seem like the only reasonable one of the lot.
Most of these shortcomings shouldn't be surprising -- neither producer Jerry Bruckheimer nor director Jon Turteltaub has much of a reputation as a narrative risk-taker. Both have had their prominent successes, though in this instance their combined commercial zeal proves far too caloric for even the most populist taste. In many instances there isn't even any attempt to disguise the seams, such as the forced insertion of an obligatory love interest in the person of a National Archives conservator (Diane Kruger).
On the upside of predictability, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel once again proves himself immune to the contagion of mediocrity, giving the picture a far more lustrous look than it really deserves. Starring Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger, Justin Bartha, Sean Bean, Jon Voight, Harvey Keitel and Christopher Plummer. Directed by Jon Turteltaub. Written by Jim Kouf and Cormac Wibberley & Marianne Wibberley. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Jon Turteltaub. A Buena Vista release. Action-Adventure. Rated PG for action violence and some scary images. Running time: 131 min