Sunday, January 06, 2008

National Treasure: Book of Secrets


When Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) reveals a long-missing page from John Wilkes Booth's diary to the public, treasure hunter extraordinaire Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) couldn't be more dismayed. His great-grandfather Thomas Gates is potentially implicated in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

In NATIONAL TREASURE: BOOK OF SECRETS Ben must again find and decipher the clues that will absolve his ancestor and possibly lead to a fabled city of gold that the Confederates sought. He reteams with technology whiz Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), adventure-seeking father Patrick (Jon Voight), and archivist and former squeeze Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger). New to the crew is his mother Emily Appleton (Helen Mirren), a Native American language expert whose acrimonious split from Patrick is as bitter as ever despite the intervening years.

Their search includes visits to Paris, Buckingham Palace, Mount Vernon, and Mount Rushmore and a most unlikely abduction of the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood). The President is the only one with access to a secret book that is rumored to be passed from the nation's outgoing chief executive to the incoming. The book is a conspiracy theorist's wet dream, but getting one's hands on it is next to impossible. Since a key piece of information is probably in that book, Ben has to steal the President away for a short while and hope he's a good sport about it.

Like its predecessor, NATIONAL TREASURE: BOOK OF SECRETS plunders national monuments and documents for elaborately coded messages that will help the heroes on their mission. Any complaints about realism or the utility of these century-old (and older) methods of concealing information are beside the point. NATIONAL TREASURE and its sequel are intended to be rollicking, old-time adventures. They're about the thrill of the chase accompanied by rosy views of patriotism and history.

Director Jon Turteltaub and the cast march through the paces with enthusiasm, but there's one crucial problem amid the onslaught of riddles and historical mysteries. No, it's not that the characters know the answers to the secrets faster than Ken Jennings would buzz in at a sports bar's electronic trivia game. The audience's inability to participate in cracking the codes sucks a lot of the fun out of the process.

There's no way to outguess Ben and company because viewers aren't given the means to play along. Instead, it would be as though everything underneath a car's hood was disassembled and set on the garage floor. A mechanic would return everything to its proper place in record time and then turn around to ask, "Got that?" One can see how he attained the result but not have any real understanding of what was done. The film does the same thing. The process is broken down, but there's no way to arrive at those conclusions independently.

Unlike the Indiana Jones films, rough models for these movies, the characters don't capture our imaginations because there is little romance in their pursuits. They're shoved from location to location like stops on an assembly line. Practically a duplicate of the breezy (and bloated) original, NATIONAL TREASURE: BOOK OF SECRETS is not without charm, but it lacks the thrill seeker's joy of discovery.

Grade: C+

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