Thursday, December 09, 2004

National Treasure

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 December 2004 at AMC Fenway #8 (first-run)

The reason I will likely never actually get paid to give my opinion of movies is that I can't give something like National Treasure the sort of extreme reaction it seems designed to draw from critics. I can't be the shill that sticks superlatives on it, but it doesn't create the desire for my review to have the nastiest, most smart-ass intro on all of Hollywood Bitch-Slap.

National Treasure is competent. It doesn't break any new ground in its storytelling, acting, or staging. Director John Turteltaub is not as flashy as some of producer Jerry Bruckheimer's usual collaborators, letting the story unfold with a minimum of distractions. The screenplay (credited to Cormac & Marianne Wibberly from a story by Jim Kouf, though the one-sheet listed Ted Elliot & Terry Rossio as well) hits the expected spots at the expected times, and doesn't give the cast much to do that's particularly memorable.

It is a fun story, though - Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) is the latest in a family that has been entrusted with a vague clue that supposedly leads to an incredible treasure, brought to America by the Knights Templar, a group which the movie tells us became the Freemasons. Many of America's Founding Fathers, of course, belonged to this group, and Masonic symbols still appear on American currency. Gates's search for this treasure is being financed by one Ian Howe (Sean Bean), but it doesn't take long for Howe to reveal himself as the film's villain. Having determined that the next clue is written on the back of the Declaration of Independence, Gates, assisted by tech whiz Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), races to steal it first. Along the way he picks up Abigain Chase, a cute archivist (Diane Kruger) and clashes with his father (Jon Voight), who has given up on finding the treasure. Along the way, there will be chases, standoffs, and the ever-popular "hidden chamber with a bottomless pit in the center".

There is a sort of optimization to this movie's casting that fascinates me. At the top, you have Nic Cage, a legitimate movie star. Star power, however, isn't additive, so the sidekick and love interest can be almost complete unknowns. The villain is a B-list guy, once pegged as a leading man, but never actually attaining that goal; thus he's a credible threat to the hero but won't actually steal the picture. Guys with good reputations forged a generation or so ago but not much to show for it recently play the hero's father and grandfather. A workhorse with indie cred (Harvey Keitel) reminds the audience that the FBI agent in charge of investigating this mess is important. I find myself wondering whether replacing Nicolas Cage with, say, Mark Wahlberg would have meant upgrading Justin Bartha to Seth Green and replacing Sean Bean with someone like Arnold Vosloo to compensate for the difference in star power.

So, let's run down what we've got - a fun basis for the movie, a producter known for delivering the good production values, an able enough director, and a decent cast. The bad news is that nobody overachieves and delivers more than you would reasonably expect; the good news is that nobody screws up. So the movie winds up being a couple of enjoyable hours, though nothing that will merit buying a DVD so that you can own it for ever and ever.

On the plus side, it's fairly kid-friendly. I don't think anyone bleeds - heck, even the [i]bad guys[/i] use non-lethal weapons on a guard while breaking into the National Archives. There's only the mildest sexual innuendo (or, unfortunatley, tension), and the rest of the language is kept clean, as well. At one point, Gates and Riley tut-tut about Abigail swearing, even though it sounded to my ears like she said "dumb" instead of "damn". Some in the audience won't see the PG rating as an asset, but it works for this picture. Its secret societies and conspiracies aren't sinister, so it wisely concentrates on the fun aspects rather than the gritty ones.

I suppose it comes down to where a person wants to draw their line and establish their standards. National Treasure is a pleasant adventure/quest movie, whereas Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is a great one (at this point, feel free to imagine me looking at their relative success at the box office and grumbling about the world not being fair). "Pleasant" was enough for me on that particular night, but may not be enough for everyone.

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