With “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Indiana Jones” sequels still a long way off, armchair treasure hunters are left with “National Treasure,” a sagging Disney tentpole that tries to combine the suspense of old Saturday morning serials with the gusto of producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s action pics. Falling short on both counts, this long, and long-winded, series of middling cliffhangers won’t pump the adrenaline of action aficionados or — particularly in light of “The Incredibles” — the family crowd. Though a safer B.O. bet than Bruckheimer’s serious-minded “King Arthur,” “National Treasure” likely will mine the most fool’s gold during its opening frame, before word-of-mouth buries it.
Treasure of the title supposedly was excavated from the temple of King Solomon by a secret monastic order. As legend has it, the vast fortune — the storied Knights Templar treasure — was then moved about Europe for the better part of five centuries, before possibly landing in colonial-era America. As nearly all of America’s founding fathers were Freemasons, many of the clues that propel the protag toward the Knights Templar loot in the film are Masonic symbols, like the unfinished pyramid and the all-seeing eye that appear on the back of a dollar bill. (The same legend also partly inspired Dan Brown’s runaway bestseller “The Da Vinci Code,” which was published while “National Treasure” was already in development.)
In 1974, young Benjamin Franklin Gates (Hunter Gomez) is told about the treasure by his eccentric grandfather John Adams Gates (Christopher Plummer), who reveals his own great-great-grandfather was entrusted by a member of the Continental Congress with an important clue concerning the treasure’s whereabouts.
Ever since, all Gates family men have devoted their lives to decoding the clue and finding the Knights Templar spoils. All except Ben’s father, Patrick (Jon Voight), who long ago decided that the treasure was an elaborate hoax.
Cut to 30 years later, north of the Arctic Circle: An adult Ben (Nicolas Cage) stumbles on a snow-covered shipwreck he believes may house the treasure. But the ship only contains a cryptic clue suggesting a treasure map is concealed on the reverse side of the Declaration of Independence.
Ben decides to abandon his family’s quest, but his wealthy benefactor Ian Howe (Sean Bean)wants Ben to steal the Declaration of Independence and continue the hunt. When Ben refuses, Ian vows to obtain the hallowed document himself.
Alarmed, Ben and his techie sidekick, Riley (Justin Bartha), try to alert the proper authorities — among them, conveniently gorgeous National Archives conservator Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) — to the intended heist, but they are nearly laughed out of Washington, D.C.
So, Ben decides to take the Declaration of Independence himself, to protect it from sinister Ian.
Setting auds up for a spectacular heist sequence, pic details the difficulties of removing the Declaration of Independence from its fortress-like encasement. The actual lift, however, looks like it could have been done by any idiot with a screwdriver and a laptop computer. It’s arguably less complex than the machinations undertaken by Thomas Crown to steal a painting.
Moreover, similarly underwhelming set pieces follow with the action more sedentary than hair-raising.
Part of the blame for pic’s failures lies with director Jon Turteltaub, whose serviceable work lacks the intense, visceral stylization that distinguishes the technique of other helmers in the Bruckheimer stable (Michael Bay, Tony Scott). But it’s surprising to find Bruckheimer throwing his considerable producing muscle behind a project in which the most elaborate action sequence involves the familiar movie stunt of an actor jumping between two moving vehicles.
Pic’s script, credited to “Rush Hour” scribe Jim Kouf and the husband-wife team of Cormac and Marianne Wibberley, began as a story co-conceived by Buena Vista marketing exec Oren Aviv and Scripps Network TV exec Charles Segars. Unfortunately, yarn often feels less like the blueprint for a satisfying night at the movies than for a theme park attraction or a video game.
The mixing of historical fact with historical fancy also wears thin long before pic passes the two-hour mark. Climactic sequence, set on a creaky scaffolding beneath Manhattan’s Trinity Church, is just plain creaky.
The oft-flamboyant Cage seems oddly sedate in what is his fourth Bruckheimer collaboration, while vets Plummer, Voight and Harvey Keitel (as the federal agent on Ben’s tail) are mostly wasted in throwaway roles. Newcomer Bartha, late of “Gigli” infamy, registers as a singularly annoying presence, while Kruger exhibits considerable charm and spirited self-confidence in her most substantial perf to date.
Production values are up to Bruckheimer’s usually high standards, highlighted by extensive location shooting in the real U.S. Eastern seaboard locations where pic is set. Lensing by ace d.p. Caleb Deschanel appears oddly flat, however, while Trevor Rabin’s aggressive musical score has been poured onto scenes with the excess of a water canon used to douse a trash-can fire.