National Treasure (2-Disc Special Edition) Review
Under no account should anyone take The Da Vinci Code seriously, neither the book nor the film. Granted, it has at least shaken hands with actuality, if not fostered a friendship with it, which is more than can be said about Brown's Deception Point, a book that ended with a pile-up of hammerhead sharks, an attack helicopter, a whirlpool and an exploding underwater volcano. Even the producers of Knight Rider would have thought twice about such a ridiculous ending but Dan Brown didn't and although it made as much sense as letting a herd of giraffes onto the M25 during the mid-morning rush hour, it had a sense of fun about it, something that is sorely missing from the books of Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code included.
The best that can be said about National Treasure it plays out as though someone with a sense of humour rewrote The Da Vinci Code and, feeling a mite confused amidst all the European settings, rushed to the safety of their American home, the Declaration Of Independence and the Liberty Bell. This rather pacy story features Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) as a man who believes firmly in the legend of the treasure of the Knights Templar being hidden by the Founding Fathers in the United States and not, as proposed by others, somewhere in the vicinity of a small church in Scotland. The Gates family believe in this legend thanks to Charles Carroll, the last living signer of the Declaration of Independence, that, "The secret lies with Charlotte!" As a boy, this clue captured Gates' imagination but now, financed by Ian Howe (Sean Bean), Ben and friend Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), find themselves in the Arctic where they believe the wreckage of the Charlotte lies.
Digging beneath the snow and ice, Gates and Howe do not find the treasure but they do come upon a Meerschaum pipe engraved with a riddle, which Gates, with a lifetime preoccupied by the search for this treasure, quickly decodes to reveal that the next clue is hidden on the back of the Declaration of Independence. While Ian suggests stealing it - he has the financial means to do so - Ben sees this as something of a problem. Until, that is, he realises that if he's ever to prove his family's unique belief in the treasure, he must learn the whereabouts of it, which means stealing the Declaration of Independence before Ian. The Charlotte explodes, Ben and Riley escape in one direction, Ian and his hired goos in another and both of them converge on the Declaration during a gala celebration. But that is only the beginning of this adventure, one in which they pick up Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) and set off in search of the treasure of the Knights Templar. Ian, the FBI and the ghosts of the War of Independence are not far behind them.
Not that you'll ever believe it but Ian Howe is the only one who stands any chance of catching up with Ben Gates, albeit in a way that the film rather forces his hand by prompting him with a giant offscreen finger to bring, however briefly, a look of concentration into his eyes. Given that he's played by Sean Bean, that was, I'm sure, even more difficult than one can possibly imagine. Even on a good day, Bean struggles with looking smart as much as his beloved Sheffield United do on the pitch and could no more work out these riddles than I could give birth. Proving this to be a fantasy, it's his Ian Howe keeping apace with Nicolas Cage's Gates. But where Gates has made a lifetime study of this treasure, his zipping through some baffling clues is understandable. Less so Sean Bean who, if he can unravel them as quickly as he does so here then so too, I would imagine, can the average four-year-old.
Accept that and National Treasure is a fine bit of hokum in which Gates, his sidekick Riley, whose character comes draped in cowardice, and Abigail Chase romp through some stately locations, the history of the War Of Independence and those staples of the conspiracy theory, the Knights Templar and Freemasons, to uncover the titular riches. To any viewer outside of North America, this treasure hunt makes as much sense as the gastro-intestinal tract but, structured like the stories of Dan Brown, one need not know one's George Washington from Denzel Washington to follow the treasure trail. Ben Gates explains the clues in such a way that even young children will have no trouble keeping up with things while the chaste relationship between Gates and Chase isn't as developed as that between Gates and Poole, who is really the star of the film much as Steve Zahn was in the similar Sahara. Sean Bean and his men fire off a couple of rounds but the rather aimless directions that the bullets take suggest their weapons might have misfired. Danger does not feature as strongly in this film's recipe for success as does fun and, mostly, the film gets by with laughs rather than sudden and unexpected killings.
With the guiding hand of Jerry Bruckheimer behind it, this is all larking about around the Liberty Bell, sneaking the Declaration of Independence out of its current resting place and in a curious diversion, atop an aircraft carrier. There is car chase through Washington DC - alright, a van chase but there is gunfire! - a rickety old path down into the treasure cave and Jon Voight and Nicolas Cage smartly giving the police the run around but National Treasure has been made such that none of this is unwelcome. Like any action-comedy from the Bruckheimer stable, this stretches over two hours but unlike his Pirates Of The Caribbean films, National Treasure never feels too long, making its way easily through the treasure hunt from the Arctic to the dusty old caves in underneath the Trinity Church Mausoleum in New York City. It's funny, reasonably exciting and plays out like a Hardy Boys book, full of cliffhangers, clues and good making the bad look stupid. Ah but when the bad guy is Sean Bean, that's not much of a stretch.
Although looking alright on DVD, National Treasure, like many a Jerry Bruckheimer film, has had rather a dull visual sheen draped over it. While certain scenes, such as the opening action on the ice and the van chase through the streets of Washington have brief moments that impress but the act of feeding all of the footage through a computer appears to have robbed the film of presenting much that is of interest. Later on, John Turtletaub appears to lose interest in making the most of the action and simply sets up his camera hoping that the addition of CG in post-production will sort out the things that he could build on location. For example, it never really looks as though much of the treasure cave was ever built for the film anywhere other than within computer memory, something that the making-of features make clear as they present the cast staring into a green screen surrounded by a few baubles and trinkets.
The DVD presentation isn't bad but there's not a great deal of clarity or detail in the image. Colours are generally pretty good but one looks for sharpness to the picture and finds it wanting. It may be that some of the locations are rather ordinary - a shopping mall here or a stately old building there - but there's little flash about Turtletaub's shooting of National Treasure. There is some Ocean's 11-styled visual effects prior to the stealing of the Declaration of Independence but the director soon lets the film settle into documentary shots of buildings made famous by American history until it picks up again in the treasure cave. However, although the DVD handles these reasonably well, such as the deep blacks in the caverns beneath New York, and the transfer is fine, the DVD feels hampered by the state of the film.
The DD5.1 audio track is, like the picture, fine but lacking anything that makes it really stand out. Certainly, the dialogue is clear and stands out from the background effects and there is some use of the rear channels for ambience but it's not a particularly exciting film to listen to, depending more on what's happening than how it's presented. Although, there's no problem with this with there being no loss of audio at any time. Finally, there are English, Spanish and French subtitles.
The particularly annoying thing about this DVD set is that in order to access all of the material on the first disc, which contains the lion's share of extras, one is forced to follow something of a treasure hunt through the DVD guided by Riley. The more one watches, the more one uncovers, which is probably the sort of thing that gets a curious child all hyped up but sure slows down the reviewing of this disc.
National Treasure On Location (11m17s): This is eleven minutes of all of the locations, which means we don't spend very much more than a couple of minutes in any one place before moving on to the next. This could, for example, have said something interesting about shooting amidst the snow and ice in the search for the Charlotte but other than it being a bit chilly and how difficult it is to plan an enormous explosion, it doesn't have very much to say. In fact, it spends almost as long explaining the use of CG and bluescreen as it does any of the actual locations, which, when there's freezing temperatures to deal with, isn't the sort of thing one really wants.
Deleted Scenes (7m51s): One of these is titled Extended Shaft Sequence, which isn't something I'd ever expected from a Disney DVD release. There are only two deleted scenes included on this release, one of which is set during the War of Independence while the other is placed in the hunt for the final location of the treasure of the Knights Templar. Both of them feature a commentary from director John Turtletaub that goes into a lot of detail as regards the making of both scenes as well as why these scenes were cut from National Treasure.
Opening Scene Animatic (2m50s): With an introduction by John Turtletaub explaining what an animatic is, this is a CG version of the title sequence of National Treasure. As with the deleted scenes, Turtletaub also offers an optional commentary on the design of the title sequence as well as the meaning behind each of its jumps through history.
Alternate Ending (1m01s): Turtletaub is back with an introduction and a commentary explaining why this, the original ending of National Treasure, was cut from the film and replaced by the one that made it into theatres. Part of Turtletaub's explanation is that audiences thought they were trying too hard to set up a sequel, which, as he tells us, wasn't the case.
If you get through those and make something of the clues given to you by the DVD, you get access to...
Treasure Hunters Revealed (8m35s): Rather than offering anything more on the Gates family, this offers the viewer a sight of real-life treasure hunters like Kim Fisher and WC Jameson, who declare they're not in this merely for the money but to keep the history alive. I believe you!
The Knights Templar (5m01s): The Knights Templar are the mainstay of conspiracy theories so it's only fair that a DVD of National Treasure permits them a feature to explain who they were, how they amassed their treasure and what eventually became of them. Like the film, this crosses paths with The Da Vinci Code on the steps of Rosslyn chapel but as with both films, it fails to come up with an answer. Then again, where would the fun be in that?
Riley Poole's Decode This: These short features are more suited to younger members of the audience as Riley uses codes, Morse code and the Rosetta Stone to explain hieroglyphics, cryptography and ways of sending secret messages. There are three puzzles after these features that, when solved, reveal a code, which is when it all seemed to go wrong. A code was revealed but it didn't seem to then do anything for the disc, which is where my own treasure hunt came to an end.
Deleted Scenes (7m53s): To explain these away, Turtletaub provides another introduction and commentary, describing how these scenes simply slowed the movie down too much, particularly when early test screenings were telling him audiences liked the quick pacing of National Treasure. As such, these are pretty good and are all completed to the standard of the rest of the film but probably only serve to explain the plot too much. Except for the strip club scene, which Turtletaub explains away by saying that every Bruckheimer movie has one but only his doesn't have any strippers.
Ciphers, Codes & Codebreakers (11m55s): Adding to Riley Poole's brief explanations of ciphers on the first disc, this explains some very simple codes such as Atbash and the Caesar encryptions before describing the Pigpen, Zimmerman Telegram and Enigma codes.
Exploding Charlotte (6m35s): Unlike every other Bruckheimer movie, the cheaper National Treasure doesn't actually blow up a real helicopter, building or boat but instead, uses a balsa wood fake Charlotte to destroy. This short behind-the-scenes feature explains the background to putting a ship frozen into the Arctic before the planting of explosives and bits and pieces of wood to blow it up.
To Steal A National Treasure (5m46s): Just in case anyone is actually thinking of stealing the Declaration Of Independence after seeing this film, this feature explains the kind of security that awaits them should they try. In brief, it would be a really bad idea as they would be encountering an even more complex security system than that which awaited Nic Cage.
On The Set Of American History (6m08s): Promising not to short change its audience, National Treasure begged for permission to shoot in the actual locations featured in the movie rather than sound stages, which this feature makes much of. Behind-the-scenes footage is mixed with interviews with the cast and crew to show off the locations.