Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Blu-Balled: I've Got a Secret -- National Treasure: Book of Secrets

If there’s one type of fiction I have total, unabashed affection for, it’s the Treasure Hunting story (see my Uncharted entry for further details). Whether it’s their exotic locales, emphasis on problem solving, or healthy blend of adventure and humor, Treasure Hunting stories are some of my favorite slices of cinematic escapism. Not every Treasure Hunting movie is created equal, however, and not every film can be Romancing the Stone. It is with mixed feelings, then, that I bring up National Treasure: Book of Secrets. Not because I don’t like it, but because it’s so bad, and I still like it.

National Treasure: Book of Secrets picks up shortly after the first movie ends, with Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicholas Cage) and his father, Patrick Henry Gates (Jon Voight), giving a presentation on their ancestor, Thomas Jefferson Gates (this movie is chock full of naming I See What You Did There’s). An attendant revealing himself to be Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) stands up and accuses Thomas Gates of being the mastermind behind the Lincoln assassination. Worse, he has proof: a missing page of the John Wilkes Booth’s diary, with Thomas Gates’ name among the conspirators.

Ben and Patrick know the truth, though: that Thomas Gates was a hero, who died trying to prevent the Confederacy from finding a massive treasure that would have helped turn the tide of the Civil War. In order to restore the Gates family’s good name, Ben and Patrick need to find the treasure and prove Thomas’ innocence.

For a paper-thin excuse to go out and find more treasure, it's not bad.

This, of course, requires getting the gang from the first movie back together: Riley (Justin Bartha), Ben’s techno-savvy protégé, who all but wears a T-shirt with the words “COMIC RELIEF” written on it; Agent Sadusky (Harvey Keitel), an FBI member who assists Ben in lieu of pursuing him this time; and Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), Ben’s old beau, who left him for his Nicholas Cage-level of social ineptitude. Joining the cast is Ben’s mother Emily (Helen Mirren), an expert in ancient languages (par for the course in stories like this).

A large part of the franchise’s appeal is how it integrates Dan Brown-esque conspiracy plots with American history. The first film was all about Revolutionary history, with Gates and co. traipsing about the East Coast to places like the Liberty Bell. Book of Secrets is trenched firmly in a Civil War setting, with the Lincoln assassination used as the plot’s main narrative thrust. While we don’t find out that Gettysburg is secretly the site of the Fountain of Youth (I can imagine the dialogue for that one: “The Conquistadors had it all wrong! It wasn’t Florida, it was Pennsylvania!”), Book of Secrets still exhibits Treasure's brand of over-the-topness, and the film is better for it.

"No, we're not looking for a 'crystal skull'."

I have fun with the National Treasure movies, but it would be remiss to think of them as anything revolutionary. Though fun and worthwhile, there are definitely aspects of Book of Secrets that could stand improvement.

Take, for example, the clues leading to the treasure. Treasure Hunting story formula dictates that the clues involve lateral thinking, but it’s also an unofficial rule that they be cryptic and mystical-sounding as well. Book of Secrets really likes the cryptic and mystical-sounding aspect, because many of the clues sound like the writers were playing Madlibs when they came up with them (“Okay, I need a noun!” “How about ‘twin’?” “Hey, that’s a good one! Now I need aaaan adjective.” “Um, okay, how aboouuuut, uh, ‘resolute’?” “Yes! Perfect! Alright, let’s go to lunch.”). One of the clues states, “The entrance shall only be revealed under a cloudless rain. Surrender your hand to the heart of the warrior.” Well and good, but the clue in question came from a letter written by Queen Victoria. Huh??? This isn’t some ancient language that was translated into an archaic form of English, it’s the bloody Queen. Surely she could have said something like, “Third rock from the left, chaps.”

I dunno what it says, but I bet it reads like a fortune cookie.

Speaking of the writing, the plot could have been massaged a bit before the movie went into production. For example, Book of Secrets ultimately deals with the search for Cibola, a lost city of gold (I was unaware that there was more than one). Fine, cool, chasing after a well-worn, if reliable, MacGuffin; hell, I can think of at least three different projects off the top of my head where people go looking for El Dorado in some form or another. My pause comes from the revelation that (SPOILER ALERT) Cibola is located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, specifically inside of Mount Rushmore. “They carved Mount Rushmore to erase the map's landmarks!” cries one character. “Mount Rushmore was a cover-up,” breathes another, heavily. What??? Certainly there are more practical ways to make a mountain look like something else.

There are also the usual slew of logistical problems that pop up in escapist entertainment like this. Things like the apparent lack of police during a heated car chase between Wilkinson and Gates in Paris. Or an apparent lack of security cameras in either the Oval Office or Buckingham Palace. Or the apparent ease in which Ben and co. can tie up an entire city’s hotel chains. The list goes on.

I'm imagining a sequel where we discover that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in retaliation for destroying the map to Shangri-La.

What makes these complaints more or less irrelevant, though, is the fun and craftsmanship brought to the rest of the table. Book of Secrets is better-cast than it has any right to be, with excellent performances from Cage, Voight, Kruger, Mirren, Keitel, and Harris, all of whom appear to be having a ball while making this film. The movie strikes a good balance between action and humor without straying too far into either territory, and Bartha’s well-timed performance as Riley has me in stitches every time I watch it. Sets, stunts, the whole nine is well-executed to the very last. Even if the movie doesn’t have a brain in its empty, conspiracy-laden head, it still knows how to have a good time.

This is ultimately what National Treasure: Book of Secrets is: a good time. A live-action, two-hour episode of “DuckTales,” sans Uncle Scrooge, plus US history and Dr. Stanley Goodspeed. A movie for playing in the background while you and your friends play Apples to Apples, occasionally paying attention to it and making an off-hand comment about it. Incidentally, this is why I bought it, and as such, I am satisfied with my purchase. Though not the best of its kind, National Treasure: Book of Secrets is still a Treasure Hunting story, and I still love it, Rushmore-shaped warts and all.

Blu-ray Breakdown:

Where purchased: Debo’s Pawn on Mendenhall in Bozeman

How much: $8

Favorite character: Riley

Favorite scene: Ben and Abigail break into the Queen’s study, while Riley acts as in-the-ear hacker guy

Rating: ***/****

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