There are many things that an action-adventure flick should be and NATIONAL TREASURE manages to not be most of them. For over two hours, there are car chases, shoot-outs, snarling bad guys, a snarky side-kick, and, because this is the typically overproduced Jerry Bruckheimer effort, explosions, the first a restrained 15 minutes into the proceedings. Yet, in all of that there is one element missing. Fun. Without that in a story this far-fetched, what’s the point?
As high-concept flicks, this one should have had a lot going for it. Our hero is Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage), who has been obsessed with the family secret, stirringly related to him by his grandfather (Christopher Plummer) when he was a boy, much to the displeasure of Ben’s father (Jon Voight), who is sick and tired of the whole thing. The short version is that a great treasure was amassed in ancient Egypt, was taken into protective custody by the Knights Templar, and eventually made its way to America with the Free Masons, of whom there were many among the Founding Fathers. In an attempt to hide it from the British, they put it in a safe place and left clues about where it could be found, one of which, became the Gates’ family secret. It also became the reason for the Gates family reputation as crackpots from the early days of the Republic to the present. Ben is about to change all that with the discovery of another clue lodged in the ice somewhere in the Arctic Circle. From there is cross, double-cross, and the respect his family should have had all along, though for all the wrong reasons, reasons that bring in the FBI and, of course, the lovely archivist/documents specialist (Diane Kruger) to add a bit of eye candy to the proceedings.
It’s not the Templar treasure that Ben is chasing that proves too much of a strain on the whole suspension of disbelief, nor it is the secret about it that’s been passed down though his family since Andrew Jackson was president. It’s not even the whole secret map on the Declaration of Independence and the intricate caper to steal that takes up the first third of the film. Hey, who doesn’t love a good conspiracy theory as the basis for a popcorn flick? No, the problem is a bumbling FBI that takes hours to track down the relatives of fugitives, and that they have trouble finding a car when they know the registration and the license plate number of same. Then there’s the consistent lack of any sort of security at any of the many, many national historical monuments that Gates, eye-candy, and that snarky, yet somehow needy side-kick (endearingly geeky Justin Bartha) visit to pick up clues on their way to the treasure. One gets the feeling that this was intended to be Bruckheimer’s homage to what makes America great with the sweeping shots of monuments and the reverent recital of Declaration prose, but instead, one comes away feeling even more vulnerable in these uncertain times.
Still, one could get past all of that were there any chemistry between Cage and Kruger. Theirs is a courtship on the run that never gets out of the starting gate. Perhaps it’s the almost complete lack of charisma that Cage evinces as he all but sleepwalks through the film with an expression and body language could be the result of his jockeys being just a scooch binding. That he delivers what should be sardonic dialogue as though he were trying to remember his grocery list, a particularly uninteresting one, not only makes it worse, but calls attention to the plodding pacing. Were it not for Bartha and gravelly Harvey Keitel as the FBI agent on the trail of the trio, there would be nothing good to say about this film.
As for why the British needed to be kept from the treasure, or why the battleship Intrepid needed to be dragged into the proceedings, well, there are some questions not worth the trouble of pondering further, not unlike NATIONAL TREASURE itself.