National Treasure Review

Don’t you just love a good adventure yarn? This one is pretty amusing; especially at a time when Hollywood isn’t known for it’s originality. According to Christopher Plummer (whose presence in the prologue is welcome), the Founding Fathers were Freemasons; a secret society whose activities were kept under-wraps. Signs of their “cult” can be found throughout American culture, such as the “all-seeing eye” on the back of a one-dollar bill. However, these signs had a purpose. The Freemason’s were guarding a treasure, and these clues led to its resting place. No one knows if the treasure is real, or merely legend, but our protagonists will try to find out. Spielberg used a similar formula to great effect in the Indiana Jones series, and Jon Turtletaub’s National Treasure tries valiantly to achieve the same cross-generational appeal.

However, our hero isn’t Dr. Jones. Instead, we have Ben Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage), whose family has pursued the fabled treasure for six generations; facing ridicule for their outlandish theories. Yet, he’s still determined to find the loot, much to the annoyance of his father (Jon Voight). However, evil millionaire Ian Howe (Sean Bean) signs on to help Gates in his quest, and the treasure hunt begins. But disaster inevitably strikes, when Ian leaves Gates for dead, and jets off to uncover the next clue. Naturally, he survives, and with his sidekick Riley (Justin Bartha) and love interest Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), he attempts to keep one step ahead of Ian, and find the treasure first...

National Treasure is ridiculous, but oddly compulsive viewing. Any adventure film - from Raiders of the Lost Ark to The Goonies - requires a sense of wonder; a sense of the unknown to keep us watching. Turtletaub’s film understands this, and offers a cornucopia of clues to keep its characters guessing. The screenwriters (among them, former Angel scribe Jim Kouf) have a great time with the material, though any sense of reality is buried pretty quickly. Gates and his companions go from place to place, uncovering each clue with disarming ease. In fact, Cage’s heroic nerd has more “ah-ha!” moments in the space of 30-minutes, than Sherlock Holmes managed in his entire oeuvre. It turns some of the sequences into parody, and the director doesn’t seem too keen on giving the events an air of credibility. Early on, Gates comes across the wreckage of an ancient ship, buried beneath the ice of Antarctica. He digs for about 10 seconds, finds the hull, and reveals the name of the ship - Charlotte - for all to see. How lucky.

So, the movie doesn’t quite live in “the real world”, but it’s still got more entertainment value than the average summer blockbuster. As many critics pointed out, the film is flawed, but not a total loss. It’s sole problem is clear - Turtletaub wasn’t the right director for the job. He’s a solid craftsman, since the picture boasts some brilliant compositions (no doubt due to cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who made bloodshed look operatic in The Passion). He clearly loves the material, and brings a good-natured vibe to the proceedings; making the flick hard to dislike. If only he could handle the action. For once, this Jerry Bruckheimer-production lacks clout. The film meanders through exposition and historical musings, before spluttering into a mildly-diverting set piece, which usually fails to excite. I hate to say it, but long-time Bruckheimer lackey Michael Bay might have been a better candidate. He would have given the action scenes a kinetic charge, and beating heart.

Still, when National Treasure gets it right, it does so admirably. It’s main centrepiece - an important piece of the puzzle - is genuinely clever stuff. The segment in question, is when Gates and Riley steal the Declaration of Independence. That’s a novel concept in itself, but the document is vital to their quest - there’s an “invisible” clue on the back. To me, that was genius. The film never offers another idea to beat this, but allows for a bout of Mission: Impossible-style tomfoolery that kept me hooked. The scene is spoiled by a rather uninspired chase at the end, but the writers get points for effort. From here, the film dips into standard adventure formula - running from the bad guys, dodging the fuzz, and risking life and limb. By the conclusion, new ideas are thin on the ground, as Gates and his cohorts venture into an underground tunnel; somehow undiscovered by the outside world. Yes, we’ve seen all this before. I half-expected Chunk and Corey Feldman to leap out of the shadows...

The cast is much better, helping to paper-over those annoying clichés. Cage is always good value, and he makes National Treasure consistently enjoyable. The role is probably a toned-down version of his Stanley Goodspeed from The Rock - geeky and ill-prepared, but willing to put his life on the line. He bounds through the scenes with energy, often making up for Turtletaub’s leisurely camerawork. Adding some humour to the film, Bartha is a decent foil for Cage’s serious tone. In fact, he manages to make up for his turn in Gigli. Kruger, on the other hand, is given little to do but flirt with Cage and get into scrapes; making her the typical damsel in distress. Naturally, the other cast members are great - Bean excels as the villain in everything, and continues the trend here; Voight plays the father figure with charm, and Harvey Keitel appears in a small, but interesting role as an FBI agent charged with hunting-down Gates.

Fun and occasionally brilliant, National Treasure is a better film than many critics led you to believe. It’s perfect fodder for the family, and despite its large faults, the film awards the audience with two hours of solid entertainment. You could do much, much worse...

The Disc

After a disappointing box office, and lukewarm critical response, National Treasure arrives on DVD with little fan-fare. It’ll no doubt do better on home video, and in that respect, Buena Vista have provided a respectable edition. It’s a good disc, if a little slim in terms of bonus material. So, is it worth excavating, or should we banish it to Davey Jones’s locker?

The Look and Sound

The folks at Disney present National Treasure in an impressive anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer, which gives the image a much-needed vibrancy. Since this is a recent studio release, there are no major faults - the print is in pristine condition, with beautiful, bright colours and bang-on blacks. There’s a pleasing depth to the image, and there was no edge enhancement or noticeable artefacts. Grain wasn’t a problem either. Still, it probably isn’t the best this film could look; the picture might have been sharper. My pet-peeve out of the way, National Treasure looks excellent, and certainly passes the test.

Audio comes with the customary Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. An active track, it suits the visuals well, though NT probably isn’t the best movie to try-out your home cinema. The surrounds are engaged for the “big” sequences, with pumped-up sound effects, and an impressive orchestral score. The track can be loud at times, but seem flat elsewhere. But the movie is dialogue-heavy, after all. The different elements are handled well, and I had no trouble hearing the cast. A functional, above-average mix, that will please any fans of the film.

Bonus Material

This one disc release includes the following:

National Treasure on Location - Your typical promotional fluff, as shown on American TV. We get footage from the set, and interview snippets with director Jon Turtletaub and the cast. It’s not very detailed, but fun, and we get to see the crew prepare for a large-scale explosion.

The Knights Templar - Here, we can learn about the Knights and how they may have transported the fabled treasure over to the new world, and what happened to it when said treasure arrived. Historical stuff on a Bruckheimer DVD? Must be a first.

Treasure Hunters Revealed - This is fairly amusing, and ties in with the film well. We meet actual treasure hunters, and even some amateur types, determined to uncover a gold-mine. Intriguing.

Riley's Poole's Decode This! - A fun interactive feature that is hosted by Justin Bartha’s Riley. The character shares some of his knowledge as you learn all about the field of Cryptography, before allowing the viewer to partake in some puzzles. A neat feature for easily-bored kids.

We also get two deleted scenes, the opening scene animatic, and an alternative ending (which I actually preferred to the final one). These extras come with an introduction by Turtletaub.

The Bottom Line

I kinda like National Treasure. It’s flawed like many a’ Hollywood effort, but has some originality beneath the surface. It’s an ideal rental, and will no doubt prove entertaining for die-hard fans of the adventure film and, urr...Nicolas Cage. Those who appreciated it at the cinema will be well-served by Buena Vista’s disc, though more extras would have been nice.

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