National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007) February 28, 2008Posted by gproject in : Cinema, Recently Viewed , trackback
Directed by: Jon Turteltaub
You won’t find a much better example of the ‘guilty pleasure’ movie than 2004’s National Treasure, a globe-trotting adventure romp that set neither critics nor audiences aflame, but which went down easy especially if digested with a pinch of salt. If you solely took the opinion of friends and colleagues then you may even be lead to believe that this family-friendly Da Vinci Code alternative is actually quite a good film - which it really isn’t - but that’s how deep rooted the National Treasure effect was. Not great, by any means, but perfectly enjoyable in a popcorn munching kind of way. It was not, however, a film to base a franchise on, which is where National Treasure: Book of Secrets makes its first, of many, missteps.
This time, historical adventurer Ben Gates is defending the honour of his great Grandfather, after a mysterious man shows up with a page from the long-lost diary of John Wilkes Booth. The page alludes to the fact that Thomas Gates was involved in Abraham Lincoln’s murder, which sets Ben, his now distant wife Abigail and his trusty assistant Riley on a worldwide hunt for clues that eventually point them in the direction of a lost city, and a book known only to the former presidents of the USA. But as the gang strive to clear the Gates family name, they are followed by the diary page owner - clearly, there is more at stake than just the reputation of one man.
The plot is, rather naturally, a ridiculous excuse to break into various completely impossible locations and debunk some interesting ‘facts’ about American history that you probably weren’t even aware of to begin with. While the original National Treasure built its harmless escapades around a slightly silly historical footnote, Book of Secrets erects an implausible legend based on little more than belief - and a trail that leads Nic Cage and crew to increasingly outlandish locales. In an effort to ‘up the ante’, as it were, the writers have included more than their fair share of notable landmarks and buildings. Too many, in fact, to the point where even your goodwill towards their creative license becomes strained.
With five separately named story writers, two of which penned the screenplay, you might be fooled into thinking that there’s a wealth of information and smart dialogue behind the thin plotting, but alas there’s little to be found here either. The conversations, especially in the beginning of the film, consist of highly expositional dialogue - the kind that states the obvious and fills you in on all the relevant information in an unbelievably short space of time. Sometimes it’s bouncy, often it’s mundane, but you’ll never be confused as to where the plot is heading. There are also a couple of relationship sub-stories to contend with, the problem is that they’re both identical and consist of broken ex-lovers rediscovering what they saw in each other. To follow the stereotype once might have been boring, but twice is a little grating. Also the fallback comic relief character (Riley, played by Justin Bartha) is back, but the writers relegate him to being nothing but ‘the funny guy’, while quickly changing his status to ‘increasingly-less-funny-guy’ in the process.
As for the rest of the cast, they muddle through; clearly nobody is in this for the prestige. Nicholas Cage returns in his first direct sequel and goes about his business as Ben Gates with seemingly little trouble. Diane Kruger also comes back to reprise her role as Cage’s love interest, Abigail Chase, while the aforementioned Justin Bartha saddles up to play the sarcastic assistant Riley Poole. You’ve got to hand it to the casting people though - Ed Harris, Helen Mirren, Jon Voight and Harvey Keitel all have major parts to play, which is not a bad roll call for this medium-grossing Disney sequel. Whether it’s just easy money, or the lure of doing an adventure flick that is suitable for any age, I’m still undecided, but they all try and make the best of what they’ve got. Ed Harris, especially, gets the unforgiving role of the bad guy and plays it like he knows how - think a more cartoon-villain version of his character from A History of Violence [review], or a toned-down General Hummel from The Rock.
The film has plenty of pace, but is overlong in its two-hour running time. This should be a snappy 100 minutes and no more, although it’s true that the first film also suffered from the same duration problem. Returning director Jon Turteltaub does a fine job at keeping everything in check, while the movie features some nice Indiana Jones style set pieces during its final act. But with a better, genuine, Indiana Jones on the way later this year, it seems almost like a starter dish before the main course. Lucky that they got it out before, rather than after, Spielberg reclaims the genre later this year. What really destroys the film though, is its plethora of questionable moments (apparently speed cameras have a pretty good resolution on them, and even the President can’t clear your name of kidnapping him - until later, when he can) and other annoyances that make it hard to take even the semi-fantasy plot seriously. When Cage puts his hand into a mysterious hole in the rock after an ambiguous warning, you’re just willing the filmmakers to take a devious turn and not do the stereotypical joke; a lashing out at Hollywood convention and two fingers up to the obvious. But no, they do the joke you all know is coming, it’s not very funny, then everyone gets on with the story. It’s direct-journey filmmaking - A to B, no stops for subversion.
Here’s National Treasure: Book of Secrets in a nutshell: It’s not all bad, it’s just mostly bad. And unlike back in 2004, there’s less of the sense of fun and tongue-in-check playfulness that won over so many viewers - even if they didn’t like to admit it. An open mind and a suppressing of your natural inquisitive nature might help, but it won’t cure all the problems running through this film. Book of Secrets is the movie that everyone thought National Treasure would be - only this time it won’t turn out to be a guilty pleasure, because it’s simply lacking the pleasure. And you can’t really recommend a guilty displeasure, since as its description suggests, that’s a double-dose of ill-feeling you just don’t need from a Disney film. Leaving itself open to a further sequel is the final insult, as there’s clearly nothing left in this franchise. Time to close the book on this one, I think.