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Wednesday, March 9, 2005
Indiana Jones, where are you?
"National Treasure" is certainly the most "blah" film produced by Jerry Bruckheimer in a long time, but given how in-your-face loud and stupid most of his films are, that's probably a compliment. It may well be possible to make a film worse than "Pearl Harbor," but let's be glad Bruckheimer hasn't achieved that here.
"National Treasure" finds super-producer Bruckheimer again turning to his favorite leading man, Nicolas Cage, who saw his action-film career take off after working with Bruckheimer on "The Rock" and "Con Air." After the duo's stupefying "Gone in 60 Seconds," though, it seemed like the partnership had hit its limit. Cage was regurgitating character tics from his older films in an attempt to flesh out a truly colorless lead role, while Bruckheimer's trademark bombast was reduced to a bunch of car chases that would have looked stale in a 1970s Burt Reynolds film.
Still, there were signs of hope when Bruckheimer -- who, more than any of the directors he employs, controls what ends up on the screen -- let Johnny Depp off the leash in "Pirates of the Caribbean," and produced a film that was a lot more campy and, well, fun than his usual output. Cage, an audacious actor at times (think "Adaptation" or "Wild at Heart"), could have put a little zing in his role in "National Treasure," but instead he's becoming the kind of safe, bland, action-hero actor who picks up waitresses at L.A. sushi bars.
Always one to leech off popular culture trends, Bruckheimer has "National Treasure" hopscotch along a trail of conspiracy that will feel familiar to anyone who's read "The Da Vinci Code." Moving through some brisk flashbacks, the film explains how the Knights Templar found a vast treasure trove beneath the Temple of Solomon during the Crusades, and have kept it hidden ever since. As the Templars morphed into the Freemasons during the Enlightenment, the secret of the whereabouts of the hidden treasure grew ever more obscure, guarded by a labyrinth of clues and codes.
In the present, treasure-hunter Ben Franklin Gates (Cage) is convinced that America's founding fathers -- Freemasons one and all -- have left carefully concealed clues to the treasure's location. He leads an expedition to the Arctic to salvage a shipwreck from Revolution-era America. There he finds clues suggesting that the secret map to the treasure is written on the Declaration of Independence.
Here, the U.S. patriot in Gates draws the line, but his British sponsor, Ian (Sean Bean), has no such scruples, and plans to steal it. (And what would a Hollywood movie be these days without a British bad guy?). Gates goes to Philadelphia, where he tries to convince Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) at the National Archives that the Declaration is actually a secret treasure map, and she just looks at him like he's off his meds. It then becomes clear to Gates that "the only way to protect the Declaration is to steal it" -- creative logic that mirrors the Bush administration's idea that the only way to protect freedom is by locking people up without trial.
Director John Turteltaub ("Phenomenon") does manage one fairly entertaining sequence, a Bond-like heist where Gates pilfers the Declaration during a swank reception, only to almost get caught by a lowly gift-shop cashier. Ian's gang shows up hot on his heels, and Gates flees with Abigail in tow. After a brief stop at a mall for a costume change, where Gates and Abigail emerge looking like walking, talking Gap ads, they visit Gates' dad, Patrick (a sleepwalking Jon Voight), a conspiracy skeptic who's nevertheless convinced when a bit of lemon juice reveals the secret map. ("I am so getting fired for this," whines Abigail.)
A game of cat-and-mouse ensues as Gates hunts out clues one step ahead of Ian's goons, in places like the Franklin Institute, the Liberty Bell, and, uh, the catacombs underneath Wall Street? This final location, with its rickety, cobweb-shrouded scaffolds and plunging elevator, literally screams "theme-park ride," but the action is too confused and ill-lit to even make sense.
The kicker comes when Gates apologizes for nearly killing Abigail by saying, "I'm sorry, I had to drop you to save the Declaration!" Americans of a patriotic nature may find it natural to choose this piece of paper over the girl, but audiences in the rest of the world may be left scratching their heads.
There will be special premiere on March 12 at Shibutoh Cine Tower, Nichigeki Plex, Shinjuku Toa Kogyo Chain and other theaters.