National Treasure 2: (2007) Nicolas Cage & The Franchise of Unlikely Situations…

I was so underwhelmed by the idea of the “National Treasure” movies that when I finally saw “Book of Secrets”, I didn’t even know it was the sequel.

But – I thoroughly enjoyed it. It got a pretty cheerless reception from snootier critics, and I’m surprised – it’s decent, unthreatening family fun. Drawing together elements of the Indiana Jones and the Da Vinci Code, plus a little bit of the abortive Lara Croft series, it actually reminds me more of another Disney caper, “One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing”. Both films show a cheerful recklessness in piling up improbable situations, although on balance, “Book of Secrets” is probably more far fetched.

A prologue takes us back to the night of April 14th, 1865 – the night of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. John Wilkes Booth and his cohorts enter a pub and approach reputed cryptologist Thomas Gates to decipher a code in Booth’s diary. Gates quickly realizes the code reveals the location of a lost city of gold.

Booth nips off to assassinate Lincoln; in the subsequent pandemonium, Gates is shot – before he dies, he tears the page out of the diary and dumps it in the fire. One of the conspirators retrieves a fragment, and Gates dies, leaving his distraught son with a suitably cryptic message; “The debt that all men pay…”

Skip forward 140 years, and Gates’ great-great grandson Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) is presenting the tale at a conference, only to be interrupted by sinister antiques dealer Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris), who presents the shred of rescued paper as evidence that Thomas Gates was in fact a co-conspirator in the president’s assassination.

If this all sounds a bit dull so far, don’t worry – it’ll get started soon, and won’t let up for another ninety minutes or so.

Ben Gates and his father Patrick (Jon Voight) are suitably distraught about their ancestor’s public de-trousering, and seek out the scrap of paper to look for vital clues. With the help of Ben’s irritating tech whizz sidekick Riley (Justin Bartha), a man so nerdish he thinks writing books about conspiracy theories is a sure-fire way to pick up chicks, and Ben’s ex Abigail (Diane Krueger), they track down the missing piece.

Luckily, Thomas Gates’ skills in cryptology run in the family, and Ben is soon able to spot the cipher and crack it – and before you know it, the gang are off on a globetrotting adventure (well, USA, Paris & London-trotting adventure) to clear Thomas’ name and locate the city of gold. Naturally, the dastardly Mitch is in pursuit…

What follows is ludicrous in the extreme, but somehow more fun because of it. Ben Gates is a man so good at solving puzzles that he can pretty much do it on the fly, and then he’s off on a plane to find the next piece of the puzzle – which tend to be hidden in rather inaccessible places (the Queen’s office in Buckingham Palace; the Oval Office in the White House, for example.)

These obstacles are navigated with remarkable ease, and the curse of the modern day blockbuster – the ill-defined use of a “Computer”. Riley’s Apple laptop is a catch-all solution for almost any problem, as well as providing some useful exposition.

The computer is modern cinema’s standard deus ex machina – an old fashioned example might be: “The hero is stranded on a plane that is about to crash into a mountain. He looks under his seat and finds a parachute, and leaps to safety.”

The modern day equivalent might be: “The hero is stranded on a plane that is about to crash into a mountain. He looks under his seat and finds a laptop, and uses it to hack into the plane’s onboard computer, and steer the plane to safety virtually.”

This rather lazy involvement of computers reached its peak relatively early, when Jeff Goldblum used his Apple laptop to hack into a flying saucer and download a virus in “Independence Day” – I know Macs are pretty versatile, but — really?

Another irritation how easily characters pop up either side of the Atlantic; one moment, Mitch is on his mobile under the Statue of Liberty; the next, he appears outside Buckingham Palace in what – I may need to see this a second time – appears to be the same scene.

Perhaps they could have borrowed the “red lines” from the Indiana Jones movies – the characters get on a plane or boat, and the line does the traveling for them, linking point to point across the map until the line approaches it’s final destination; the camera moves in, and the next scene begins.

It’s an effective and atmospheric approach that conveys a long journey without having to show Indy eating small meals out of a plastic tray, waiting for the stewardess to pass with her trolley so he can visit the toilet, trying to sleep sitting up, that kind of stuff.

Also, in a lighthearted caper such as this, it would be good to see a more cartoony performance from Ed Harris – we get a few tight lipped sneers here and there, but he’s far too civilized to be a dastardly bad guy in this. We know he can do cartoony well – think back to his feral nutjob Blair Sullivan in “Just Cause”.

Here, his Mitch Wilkinson, with his standard issue goons to do most of the clobbering and shooting for him, even has a bland motive – he doesn’t want to find the lost city of gold so he can steal it; he just wants to go down in history as the man who discovered it.

On the plus side, the plot barely pauses for breath long enough for you to feel bad about how daft this all is, and the standout action sequence is a surprisingly effective car chase through the narrow streets of London. It looks a little like something from “Ronin” or one of the “Bourne” films.

At least, I was finding it pretty effective until I saw the red post box. Until that point, I thought the London scenes were shot on location (they may well have been) – but then I realized we were basically being shown a list of all the things an American tourist might want to see when visiting London – Buckingham Palace, Big Ben – check, check.

Then I started to wonder if the chase sequence might actually be filmed on a backlot in Hollywood, and the set designer never made it as far as the souvenir shop at Heathrow Airport. Here’s St Paul’s, here’s a black taxi cab, there’s a red double decker bus – I was wondering if we might see a Beefeater or Pearly King diving out of the way of the oncoming vehicles.

And it is very American, this film – Nicolas Cage is remarkably restrained, and certainly more engaging than he’s been for most of the past decade. But his one trademark outburst of shouty over-acting basically involves him ripping the piss out of the English accent, yelling things like “Bangers and Mash” at policemen in an exaggerated accent that makes Dick Van Dyke’s Chimney Sweep sound spot on.

Despite all the annoyances, I kept on enjoying it right through to the end. Along the way, we pick up Harvey Keitel as a benign FBI agent, and Helen Mirren as Ben’s mum, and it kept being fun right through to the extended and rather undynamic, Indy-esque finale in the City of Gold itself.

One thing that keeps it going is it’s stars. The script is hardly a classic, but everyone involved clearly seems to be committed, and when you get Cage, Harris, Voight, Mirren & Keitel all in one movie and enjoying themselves, these old pros can make any old tat fly.

More enjoyable and coherent than the Lara Croft flicks; less self-important than the Da Vinci Code, Book of Secrets – and presumably it’s prequel – are good old fashioned family fun, destined for that pre-Queen’s speech slot on a Christmas Day near you soon.

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About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 02/05/2012, in Adventure, Family, Film, Movies, N, Thriller and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I saw it on DVD at a friend’s house and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Great review!

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