Jon Turteltaub’s National Treasure is a beautiful con job, an engaging cross-country jaunt of conspiratorial whimsy. Seamlessly mixing historical fact with utter bullshit, it is both deeply implausible and surprisingly entertaining.
The movie opens in 1974 as a young boy goes up to the attic one night trying to investigate something he shouldn’t. His grandfather (the delightful Christopher Plummer) catches him and wonders what the hell he’s doing. Ultimately, however, he feeds his already insatiable curiosity by telling him everything he knows about the long history of a secret treasure and its final connection to America’s Founding Fathers.
40 years later, that inspired young boy grows up to be Nicolas Cage whose childhood intrigue has grown into full-blown obsession. (If my math is good, he’s the fourth generation male in his family to pursue this.) He’s on the verge of making a major breakthrough in his ongoing search for that elusive fortune, thanks to major funding from a very charismatic, blond-haired Sean Bean. Years of investigation and code cracking have led him to the Arctic Circle where him and his team find an old ship called the Charlotte buried under tons of snow.
Once inside, they seemingly hit a dead end. There appears to be nothing but dead skeletons, hammocks and barrels full of gunpowder in there. But wait! Some cheeky fellow has hidden something in one of them, a rather intricately carved meerschaum pipe that, as it turns out, is integral to finding the treasure.
There’s also a riddle which Cage solves rather quickly. And that’s when Mr. Bean turns heel. Since Cage determines that the Declaration of Independence has a treasure map on its reverse side (a wild hypothesis he most definitely needs to confirm), Bean declares he will steal it. (It turns out he has experience with heists.) Cage is appalled by this and wants nothing to do with his crackpot scheme. Out comes the handgun and now we have a stand-off.
A desperate Cage lights a flare and long story short, when it’s accidentally dropped, everyone bolts and it’s good-bye Charlotte.
Along with his quick-witted, tech-savvy sidekick Justin Bartha, Cage returns to D.C. to try to warn the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security about Mr. Bean’s diabolical forthcoming heist. Knowing his family’s history, though, no one takes him seriously, not even the beautiful Diane Kruger, a bigwig at the National Archives. (In her case, he actually uses a fake name hoping in vain for a more supportive response.)
Despite her skepticism, though, Cage makes a connection with her regarding her treasured collection of George Washington campaign buttons. She only needs one more to complete the set and he just so happens to have the missing button at home. Score one for the nerds.
Realizing he has to steal the DOI in order to save it, he conjures up a plan that depends very highly on lax governmental security, weak passwords, the full support of the initially reluctant Bartha and a whole lot of luck. As admittedly clever as it sounds in theory, there’s no fucking way it could work in real-life. The restoration room surely isn’t left this unguarded in the real National Archives, even during special public events.
While waiting for his meeting with Kruger, Cage peruses a brochure for the NA’s upcoming 70th Anniversary gala. He correctly figures that Bean will make a play for the DOI document that night so his hope is to grab it first. But there’s a big problem. He’s not on the gala guest list.
No worries. Thanks to technology and a really out-of-it security guard, he’s let in as a fake maintenance guy and then, after a quick change in the can, Cage is able to blend in with the actual invited guests dressed to the nines. He once again encounters Kruger and it’s clear something is stirring between them. Still, that doesn’t stop her from asking someone if he’s even on the guest list.
Meanwhile, Bean & his band of burglars arrive on the scene, so the race is on.
This sequence alone is one of the many reasons why National Treasure, for all its improbabilities, is such cheeky fun. Skillfully plotted, acted and directed, it’s far more thrilling than the Ocean’s Eleven remake. We hope Cage gets to that restoration room where the protected DOI is waiting to be freed long before Bean & his thieving comrades get there.
A thoroughly predictable plot twist (that I still thoroughly enjoyed) sees Cage, Bartha and an understandably pissed off Kruger band together when the original plan inevitably goes awry. (Should’ve brought more cash, Cage.) After some expected bickering (why does Kruger have to shut up, exactly?) they end up at Jon Voight’s house and let’s just say he’s not too thrilled to see his son Nick Cage. (Amusingly, he thinks he knocked up Kruger.) A longtime skeptic of the treasure hunt, our heroes are crushed to learn that some crucial letters he once had have since been donated to a museum in Philadelphia.
After confirming the DOI treasure map theory and getting an important clue, it’s off to look at those letters. But Bean and his goons are there as well, and they’re not stupid. A careful examination of the displayed historical documents leads to the acquisition of an important piece of equipment. Cage, Bartha and Kruger have little time to savour their progress, though, as the heels close in on them. The chase is on so they split up.
Unfortunately, Kruger and Bartha, through a rather avoidable contrivance, lose the DOI to Bean, and Cage gets nabbed by FBI agent Harvey Keitel who is determined to put him in prison for a very long time.
Right from the beginning, National Treasure has to immediately hook you. That’s why the first scene is the most important, so crucial to its overall success. With its promise of a big pay-off once this long lost treasure trove is finally unveiled, if the five-minute backstory setting it all up isn’t compelling to start with, then the next two hours and five minutes will feel a lot longer than they should. Thankfully, Christopher Plummer is an excellent salesman and Cage is a supremely zen hero with equally likeable allies. Their obsession becomes our own.
Our patience is thankfully rewarded with an ending that would feel right at home in an Indiana Jones movie, not an easy feat for a PG-rated Disney flick with no intense violence or overly elaborate special effects that lead us to that moment. (The bloodless action sequences are, for the most part, well executed, especially the church scene in the third act.)
National Treasure is smart enough to recognize it can’t be taken too seriously so its preposterousness is wholly embraced by mostly well-timed quips and frequent skepticism from a very funny Jon Voight who is constantly annoyed by the seemingly endless amount of clues set up by the forefathers to protect their historic treasure. (They wisely believed the massive collection shouldn’t be owned by any one person, especially kings & tyrants.)
Cage & Kruger have a nice chemistry, mainly because they have so much in common. Equally fascinated with American history & antique artifacts, despite her early attempt to flee (because she’s worried about getting shitcanned from the National Archives), once she’s sees for herself that Cage was right with his hunch, she’s all in. From the second they meet, the movie establishes them as intelligent equals, especially when it comes to their dating histories.
As for the villainous Bean, one wonders if he would really fall for Voight’s deception considering he, too, is as smart as Cage. (They always seem to be in the same place at the same time for the exact same reason.) Regardless, his dialed-down performance is effective, despite his level of cruelty being greatly limited by the PG rating. From the moment he turns on Cage in the Arctic Circle, we want him to fail.
National Treasure may have divided critics during its profitable 2004 theatrical run but I had too good a time to dismiss it like an arthouse snob. I liked the cast, I laughed at most of the jokes, I enjoyed most of the action and I fell for its fantastical story.
You got me, Jerry Bruckheimer. You fucking got me.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, August 29, 2015