For an action-adventure produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (2003's "Bad Boys II
"), he of the rapid-fire, Attention Deficit Disorder editing and superficial approach to characterization, "National Treasure" stays mostly within said boundaries even as it is more tame and less grating than most. Fruitlessly directed with occasional finesse by Jon Turteltaub (2000's "The Kid
"), the plotting is hard-to-swallow but not really to be taken seriously. When the film sets its sight on the central chase, the chirpy pacing keeps things engaging. When the stick-figure character types posing as human beings are forced to talk, however, viewers may find themselves cringing to an overwhelming degree. This is one screenplaycredited to Jim Kouf (2004's "Taxi
"), Cormac Wibberley, and Marianne Wibberley (2002's "I Spy
")that would have excelled had all the dialogue been excised or retooled.
Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage), a present-day descendant from the time of the nation's Founding Fathers, comes from a long line of men who believed the myth that a treasure was hidden by the Free Masons. With best friend and associate Riley Poole (Justin Bartha) by his side, Ben has made it his life's ambition to prove its existence. When an expedition to the Arctic Circle leads him to a clue signaling that an invisible map is hidden on the back of the Declaration of Independence, he is abruptly double-crossed by his shady partner, Ian Howe (Sean Bean), who wants the treasure for himself. Now the chase is on, with Ben and Riley devising a plan to steal the Declaration of Independence and follow the cryptic clues to the treasure as a way of thwarting Ian's plan, with the FBI in hot pursuit. Joining them on their journey from Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia to New York City is National Archives curator Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), whose initial skepticism makes way for a personal stake in finding the long-lost treasure.
Far-fetched as it may be, "National Treasure" carries a fascinating undercurrent as it follows Ben, Riley, and Abigail on a wild goose chase from city to city and from one clue to the next. The cinematography by Caleb Deschanel (2004's "The Passion of the Christ
") is richly textured, making vivid use of its location shooting in the aforementioned citieseven if, in D.C., every single exterior sequence happens to take place in front of the capitol's many historical landmarkswhile the editing by William Goldenberg (2003's "Seabiscuit
") keeps things nicely taut. There are instances where the movie almost becomes fun, particularly in the theft of the Declaration of Independencea clever, involving heist that is far and beyond a similar, inferior scene in the recent "After the Sunset
"and during an attempted getaway through the streets, buildings, and even cemeteries of Philadelphia.
Leaving one's brain in the theater lobby is advised, though, as the amount of plot holes stack up to undeniable lengths. The effortlessness with which Ben is able to figure out the most enigmatic of clues is preposterous, and director Jon Turteltaub barely makes an attempt to explain the conclusions he comes up with in a comprehensible manner. Meanwhile, Ian and his cronies, who are all evil for the reason that these types of movies always need bad guys, seem to know much more than they logically would at the most opportune of times, just so there can be close-call chases between them and the trio of well-intended protagonists.
Even if the quick nature of the plotting ratchets some engrossment, less interesting and more vague is the point behind all of it. Nicolas Cage (2003's "Matchstick Men
"), a gifted, far-ranging actor who can switch effortlessly between lofty, independent-minded features and big-budget actioners, is so good he rarely even calls attention to himself. Instead, he becomes his characters, as he does all of them. What Cage cannot do as Benjamin Gates is provide a plausible reason for why he cares so much about finding the treasure. Sure, he wants to prove his naysayers wrong, but then what? No fault of Cage's, but the screenplay doesn't seem too interested in delving into his character's passion and making it stand for something. Additionally, the romance that pops up in the second half between himself and Abigail occurs because the conventions of the genre demand it, not because there is any true connection between these two individuals.
Diane Kruger, who was vacuous as Helen in 2004's "Troy
" and not much improved in 2004's "Wicker Park
," is looser and more likable as Abigail Chase. She actually has presence this time around, and it's a fortunate thing; her role is big on charm and nonexistent in depth. Rounding out the three explorers, Justin Bartha (2003's "Gigli
"), as Riley, is saddled with that most insufferable of clichésthe jokester sidekick. Bartha tries with all of his might to make something out of a stock trait, but to no avail. He, and his every flat-footed one-liner, is wretchedly unfunny. In smaller turns, Jon Voight (2004's "The Manchurian Candidate
") plays Benjamin's father, who has yet to become a believer in the hidden treasure, and Harvey Keitel's (2002's "Red Dragon
") useless part as the lead FBI agent on Ben's trail could have, and should have, been played by an actor of lesser abilities. Keitel's wasted appearance merely calls attention to itself.
In a season of bigger, more imaginative motion pictures ("The Polar Express
," "The Incredibles
") and smaller, more rewarding ones ("Sideways
"), "National Treasure" is a middle-of-the-road trifle. Its PG rating is, no doubt, intended to draw in families, but with its adventure aspects frequently skimmed over in favor of thriller elements and all of the characters being adults, children will be bored. As for the adults in the audience, their attention spans will be satiated, but not to any memorable end. The closing credits of "National Treasure" signal a squandering of creative potential with a lazy screenplay afraid to take on a personality to call its own.