Thursday, January 3, 2008

National Treasure: Book of Secrets — Sophomoric fun

National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007) • View trailer
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for powder-puff violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.3.08

Hollywood hokum doesn't get much sillier than National Treasure: Book of Secrets.

Having discovered and ventured into a hitherto unknown chamber beneath
Mount Rushmore, our heroes — from left, Patrick (Jon Voight), Ben (Nicolas
Cage), Emily (Helen Mirren) and Abigail (Diane Kruger) — are about to have
an unpleasantly close encounter with way too much running water. Just an
average day, for our intrepid treasure-seekers...
That said, this 21st century riff on Boys' Own Adventure Stories should play well with folks not willing to wait for masters Spielberg and Ford to unveil the long-awaited fourth entry in the way-similar Indiana Jones franchise.

Boasting impressively opulent production design — Dominic Watkins, take a bow — and an aggressive pace that minimizes the time during which we might contemplate the script's numerous lapses in logic, this return visit from Nicolas Cage's honorable treasure hunter is pure escapist fun: certainly not a bad thing, for families seeking movie thrills during the waning days of the holiday season.

Book of Secrets is a well-mounted "good time at the movies" that exploits enough actual history to qualify for a public service merit badge ... which is appropriate, since Cage's Benjamin Franklin Gates is the ultimate boy scout: a do-gooder to the core, forever willing to think the best of friends and enemies alike, even when circumstances call for a bit more healthy cynicism.

And when we reach this film's equivalent of Superman's "truth, justice and the American way" speech, Cage delivers it with a solemn eloquence that makes us believe, if only for a few seconds, that solid moral values do still have a place in American society.

Cage is great at that sort of stuff; he projects a guileless sincerity — a puppy dog frankness — that begs us to trust him. And why not? His Ben Gates demonstrated the highest level of integrity during his first adventure, and we've no reason to expect any less here.

Indeed, director Jon Turteltaub (back from the first film) and a legion of eight (!) credited screenwriters and an equal number of producers (!!) have ensured that the formula doesn't stray a jot from what worked the first time. Granted, the one-liners may be a little more James Bondishly smart-assed, but otherwise this is business as usual.

Things haven't gone too well for Ben and his friends since their previous escapade. He and ladyfriend Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) are on the outs for some silly reason that we just know won't last longer than this film's 124-minute running time. (Besides, Cage and Kruger aren't convincing when they argue.)

The situation is even more comically dire for their wisecracking sidekick, Riley (Justin Bartha), who can't gain any attention with his new book, and has attracted the wrong sort of notice from the IRS, after misguided financial advice from a fly-by-night accountant.

But matters are about to get a lot worse, thanks to a mysterious individual — Ed Harris, as Mitch Wilkinson — who pops up with apparently incontrovertible proof that one of Ben's ancestors was involved in the plot to kill President Lincoln. Although the script pays a bit of lip-service to the weird fact that Wilkinson waited all this time to reveal said information, for the most part nobody questions the authenticity of the diary page with this scandalous fact.

Nobody, that is, except Harvey Keitel's suspicious FBI agent, Sandusky, who pops up here and there to dispense a few words of cautionary wisdom, always in the company of two FBI flunkies — one guy, one gal — who apparently aren't important enough to be granted names, let alone any reason for being in the film.

This revelation comes as a terrible shock to Ben's father, Patrick (Jon Voight), who cannot bear this fresh stain on the family honor. Ben therefore vows to "make it right" and prove that their ancestor was, in fact, a stand-up guy.

And it's a testament to the sloppy nature of this script, that in the subsequent confusion of other events, Ben never really does clear the family name ... at least, not in a smoking gun, this-proves-he-was-innocent sort of way.

Ah, well. Details, details.

The "subsequent confusion" so referenced includes a trip to Paris, for a closer look at one of the other Statues of Liberty — if you thought only one existed, Ben happily sets you straight along the way — and then a bit of breaking and entering at both London's Buckingham Palace and the White House, to get a closer look at twin antique desks actually designed by the sort of demented mind that concocts those Chinese puzzle-boxes of intricate sliding panels.

Oh, yes, and we mustn't forget the ultimate U.S. cover-up, which explains why the four carved presidential heads on Mount Rushmore really were plunked onto that particular chunk of real estate.

All this investigative action proceeds with Wilkinson and his gang — Thug One, Thug Two, Thug Three and the rest — in hot pursuit, thanks to their having bugged Patrick's cell phone ... another detail that comes and goes in the script, depending on whether a particular plot point does or doesn't require it.

And, thanks to the film's family-friendly PG rating, Wilkinson's gun-toting goons never hurt a soul, despite firing all sorts of rounds, and the film's obligatory car chase similarly damages plenty of stuff while carefully avoiding any injury to innocent bystanders. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer must hate to remain so restrained!

Helen Mirren pops up as Ben's mother, Emily, quite handily an expert in ancient languages, and long estranged from Patrick, thanks to a long-ago argument over who packed which luggage during some exotic trip. As excuses for prickly sniping come, this "reason" for their separation doesn't even register on the credibility meter; it's mere window-dressing to ensure that when the third act reaches its happy conclusion, the inevitable reunion between Ben and Alison will be matched by a similar thaw between Patrick and Emily.

Gotta keep the over-50 viewers happy, as well...

Bruce Greenwood appears as our president — the script doesn't give him a name; he's simply The President — who factors in these events because he can confirm (or deny) the supposed existence of the presidential "book of secrets" of this film's title, which apparently has the actual skinny on little matters such as Kennedy's assassination, the notorious Area 51 and other stuff that has kept nutjob conspiracy theorists happy for decades.

And, once again, it's a sign of Ben's amazing honesty and integrity that when he finally does get his hands on this little tome, he dutifully skips past all that other stuff and reads only the page relevant to his quest. What a guy!

(Greenwood makes a persuasive president, as he proved while playing John F. Kennedy in Thirteen Days. He's got that mantle of leadership thing down pat.)

It all sounds silly when described here, but in fairness Turteltaub and his editors — William Goldenberg and David Rennie — run a tight ship, resulting in a Perils of Pauline-style romp that sprints breezily from one setpiece to the next. Bartha gets off plenty of well-timed wisecracks, although Riley's unloved sidekick act eventually wears a bit thin.

Kruger's acting chops have improved considerably; she's no longer the stiff department store mannequin who was such an emotional black hole in the first film.

The only problem likely to genuinely bother people is the utter impossibility of getting a bead on Harris' character. Wilkinson goes through so many emotional highs and lows, and behaves as a result of so many ambiguous motivations, that his actions are wholly inconsistent from one scene to the next. His character is much too sloppy, even for a cartoonish script such as this one.

But as long as viewers understand that this isn't the sort of movie to concern itself with plot logic or credible character development, all should be right with the world. National Treasure: Book of Secrets is a giddy, high-spirited romp that deserves to be enjoyed on its own terms.

I certainly wouldn't mind yet another round with these characters; they're all obviously having a good time, and we should do no less.

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