Thursday, May 22, 2008

National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets

Director: Jon Turteltaub
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger, Justin Bartha, Ed Harris, Jon Voight, Helen Mirren, Harvey Keitel, Bruce Greenwood

Running Time: 125 min.

Rating: PG

*** (out of ****)

At the conclusion of National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets I was pondering an interesting question: Do you punish a sequel for essentially just duplicating the original? Well, if you happened to like the original then I’d like to think the answer should be “No.” I’ve always been of the belief that a sequel is supposed to take the ideas presented in the original and expand on them to build a new story while still remaining faithful to the first installment. But, really, should such a strict rule even apply to something like Disney’s National Treasure franchise? It’s just supposed to be mindless fun. If you can’t suspend disbelief or check logic at the door be prepared for a miserable experience. If you can, it’s a great time. Anyone who liked the first film will like this one just the same and anyone who couldn’t stand it won’t find anything to appreciate this time around either. Forgo any speculation about how it stacks up to original. It’s the exact same movie.

The good news for star Nicolas Cage is this ends his successive streak of bombs, as it goes without saying this is a huge step up from Ghost Rider and Next. Although I don’t know what it says when it takes a light family film like this to actually ring a decent performance out of him. As for the myriad of other Oscar winners and nominees in the picture, I never stopped and wondered what the hell they were thinking appearing in something like this, which is high praise considering the talent involved. While the material is beneath them it never feels like it because they all appear to be having a good time. As a result, I had a good time.

Discussing the convoluted, absurd plot of this film in any kind of detail is almost pointless. All you need to know is that treasure hunter Ben Gates (Cage) is back and now on a mission to recover the missing 18 pages of John Wilkes Booth’s diary in order to prove his great-great grandfather wasn’t a co-conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Yes, you read that right. And that’s just the beginning. To do it he must follow a set of clues that take him everywhere from Buckingham Palace to the Oval Office to Mount Rushmore to find a fabled City of Gold treasure and uncover a Presidential “Book of Secrets.” Along for the ride again is his now ex-girlfriend Abigail (Diane Kruger), his bumbling father Patrick (Jon Voight) and tech sidekick and perennial third wheel Riley (Justin Bartha). There’s also the introduction of a new character, Ben’s mother Emily (Helen Mirren), a college professor who harbors a bitter 30-year-long grudge against his father. In one of the many identical developments to the first film a sneering villain is on Ben’s tale, following his every step to the treasure. This time it’s Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) who, like Ben but unlike the baddie in the previous installment, is very personally tied to finding it.

There were so many points during this film where I was laughing aloud uncontrollably. The clues Ben and company follow, part Amazing Race and part Trivial Pursuit, are so complicated it’s comical. But they’re also a lot of fun. At points you can’t even understand anything they’re talking about other than the fact that it involves U.S. history. In just the opening scene we’re treated to an unintentionally hilarious re-enactment of the Lincoln Assassination that somehow manages, amidst supreme silliness, to get the small details of that night right.

If the big, memorable moment in the first film was Ben stealing The Declaration of Independence it’s counterpart in the sequel is his attempt to kidnap the President of the United States, who here has the worst security detail of any elected official in world history. But I was just relieved to see the movie not insult us by attempting to have an actor impersonate George W. Bush. Instead, the Commander-in-Chief is played very well and believably by Bruce Greenwood, who has experience doing this before as John F. Kennedy in Thirteen Days. He’s especially valuable here, lending credibility to the most ridiculous situation imaginable. He’s so good should be tapped to play the President in every movie.

Cage slides back into his role with ease while Diane Kruger is just as bland as she was in the first film, though it hardly matters considering the depth (or lack thereof) of her role. Basically, she does fine for what she’s asked to do. The real success story to report though is that Mirren and Voight are not only utilized well but really add something of value to the film. They have great chemistry together and I can honestly say that I cared about their characters’ relationship and where it would go next. If the two of them ever co-starred in a spin-off film I would watch it in a heartbeat. Mirren, especially, really delivered the goods in her role. They could have easily just phoned it in for a paycheck but it’s obvious they were really enjoying themselves.

Unfortunately, Harvey Keitel is completely wasted as an F.B.I. agent. I have no idea why his character is even in the movie and he probably doesn’t either. It’s fun watching Ed Harris as a villain in a Disney family film and even funnier watch his supposed villain get a little too comfortable hanging out with the adventurers whose lives he’s supposed to be threatening. The character does have more depth than you’d expect and the script has him makes some interesting decisions in a thrilling water-soaked climax that reminded me a little of The Poseidon Adventure.

At over 2 hours you could make an argument that the film is too long but director Jon Turteltaub deserves credit for pacing it so briskly that it never drags. He also deserves credit for managing to craft a rip-roaring action/adventure yarn within the confines of a wimpy PG rating. The script from The Wibberleys (which sounds more like an auction house than a screenwriting team) is somewhat clever in the way it incorporates all of this American history into the framework of the story. Even though I was laughing at the preposterousness of it all I had to appreciate the hard work and research that must have gone in to crafting something this crazy. Trevor Rabin’s score is also very good. It has an old time Colonial feel to it that really suits the material well.

On the surface it may appear it doesn't take any talent to make the same film twice, but I’d argue it does. Ask Paul Thomas Anderson to direct There Will Be Blood again the same exact way and have it be as good. He couldn’t, nor would he likely care to since it would be pointless. Of course, why anyone would want to make the same film twice is a question that’s probably best left unexplored, but Turteltaub gets the job done. It’s probably a tough sell getting anyone to want to rent this when another considerably more exciting adventurer is tearing up the big screen, but it delivers a decent time. This isn’t high art and the bar is set low, but the film clears it with relative ease. National Treasure 2 works only on the most basic level, but it’s refreshing to see a movie that can still succeed in its modest ambition to just simply entertain.

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