It came out of nowhere to be one of 2004's surprise hits. It featured the inconsistent star power of one Nicholas Cage, and used the antiquities of US history as a stepping stone for some minor action adventure antics. Using the arcane symbolism employed by our forefathers as emblematic of something more nefarious and devious, the plot revolved around untold wealth, hidden clues, and the high tech hope of uncovering the truth. While critics were mostly unimpressed, audiences responded favorably. For them, it was a Disney attraction (the studio supporting the film) come to life. In retrospect, such an evaluation is not far from the truth. While nothing monumental or novel in the typical thriller genre, this well meaning movie is a slightly above average entertainment. Of course, this means the studio has to supply us with an unnecessary double dip just as it introduces the latest installment in this burgeoning dynasty to audiences worldwide. Imagine that.
It's been part of the family legacy for as long as little Benjamin Franklin Gates can remember - an ancestor, the stable boy for a signer of the Declaration of Independence, entrusted with a secret clue to the new nation's largest hidden treasure. After his father spent 20 years looking for it, Ben thinks he's stumbled upon the solution. Along with cybergeek pal Riley, and rich beneficiary Ian, they come across the frozen wreckage of a ship that may hold the key to the long lost map. Turns out, the Declaration itself holds the most important clue - an actual map. "Borrowing" it won't be easy, and when Ben and Ian have a falling out, it becomes a race against time - and each other - to get a hold of the hallowed document. In their way are the National Archives, its proprietress Abigail Chase, and the FBI. Still, with a fortune this size, no risk is too big, even if it means defiling centuries of US history in the process.
With its success spawned sequel currently gobbling up large wads of Christmas holiday cash, a look back at the tame treasure hunt that started it all is probably warranted - at least from a double dip DVD standpoint. At its core, National Treasure is nothing more than a Classics Illustrated history lesson gussied up with the leftovers from a Raiders of the Lost Ark style '40s serial editing bin. It is puzzles as panaceas, little sidestep stunt showcases passing for narrative drive and plot complexity. It's reliance on Free Masonry, the Knights Templar, and an early America's fascination with all things conspiratorial and cabalistic gives that Da Vinci load a run for its labored money, and yet none of the founding father falderal adds up to something insightful. Instead, it's needless namedropping, a way to make the hidden fortune "to great for any one man to own" into a colonial red herring. At least the first film in what appears to be a growing franchise had the good taste to keep actual events out of it. Watching Lincoln get assassinated as part of Book of Secrets' starting riffs proves just how tactless this entire poke at the past can be.
As the man who made such mediocrity as 3 Ninjas and Disney's The Kid, Jon Turteltaub deserves some kind of credit for significantly stepping up his game. Of course, when you're going from kid vid vomit to middling daring do, we aren't talking about giant strides. The action sequences are Discovery Channel clever, nothing the Mythbusters can't accomplish with a pig carcass and a warehouse full of cordite. Even seasoned schlock pro Nicholas Cage has an "I can do better" smirk plastered across his hindered hero façade. Still, he goes through the motions, bringing heretofore unknown accomplices Diane Kruger and Justin Bartha along for the ride. With its reliance on famous locations (Washington DC and Philadelphia PA get the big workouts here) and proto-logical security measures that require a grade school knowledge of science to circumvent, everything is geared to pleasing the eye and disengaging the brain. And since our heroes never fail - only slightly falter - we can enjoy their efforts with little or no emotional involvement.
Indeed, National Treasure breezes by so superficially and weightless that it makes you wonder about the star power involved. Cage and his crew are one thing, but how come Christopher Plummer, Harvey Keitel, Jon Voight, and primary villain Sean Bean seem so slight? Each actor is typically potent in their other performances, so why are they so weak here? It could be Turteltaub's fault, but one sees the script by committee as the primary problem. Instead of being given anything valid to do, everyone here is merely a pawn in the overall Escapades for Dummies dynamic. Granted, without their presence, the film would be a thousand times worse, but their participation brings no gravitas guarantees. It's the same with the sequel, where Ed Harris grabs a paycheck for playing a disgruntled son of the Confederacy. It's a good thing that producer Jerry Bruckheimer has so much CSI/POTC money. He's paying A-list wages for D-list dramatics. Still, there's enough inherent intrigue in the story basics, and a fair amount of subpar video game riddles to keep a viewer cautiously content. National Treasure is not a full fledged bomb - though it does threaten to detonate every now and again. Instead, it's a decent diversion, that's all.
The previous comments on the technical specs of this release provided by fellow critic Randy Miller III in his review of 2 May, 2005 still stand. You can read them here. Therefore, there's no need to go into further detail except to say that this new digital release is neither a remaster nor an optical update. It's just the old DVD with a second disc of added content.
The previous comments on the technical specs of this release provided by fellow critic Randy Miller III in his review of 2 May, 2005 still stand. You can read them here. Therefore, there's no need to go into further detail except to say that this new digital release is neither a remaster nor an aural remix. It's just the old DVD with a second disc of added content.
Oddly enough, it appears that everything available the first time this title hit the home video format has been retained here. They include the same coded "hidden feature" set up, a collection of featurettes dealing with behind the scenes location filming, the Knights Templar, the truth about Treasure Hunters, and a goofy game called "Riley's Decode This!". There's also a collection of deleted scenes (some fairly interesting) with commentary, an alternate ending (with director's discussion) and an opening scene animatic with added Turteltaub remarks. There may be more, but this critic was obviously too dense to figure them out (thanks to the DVD Talk Easter Egg Database, your truly was finally able to open the hidden trivia track option and the extended list of all features).
As for the second disc, we get more deleted material (removed as Turteltaub explains for reasons of "pacing, pacing, and pacing"), and four more featurettes dealing with codebreakers, exploding the Charlotte set, and more making-of machinations. Truth be told, none of this material is amazingly important to your enjoyment of the film. You'll probably take pleasure in the F/X insight, and the interviews claiming that some of this hidden treasure speculation is based in reality, but for the most part, this is shill sweepings collected and complied to maximize theatrical release tie-in potential. It's just a shame that this somewhat decent effort has to be linked to the lumbering overinflated failure currently collecting untold ticket revenue at your local Cineplex.
Perhaps it's the bad taste left in the mouth after a recent Book of Secrets screening. Maybe it's the fact that the first film takes itself more seriously than its slack, scattered sequel. It could be a realization that mild amusement is still part of anoverall enjoyment strategy, or the fact that this movie plays better on the small screen, complete with frequent snack breaks and the ability to take the ample archetypes in via a personally preferable mode. Whatever the case, National Treasure earns a Recommended rating, providing just enough fun to win over even the most discerning cinematic snob. The added content provided on this new two disc DVD is nothing important or impressive, but it will contain enough differing information and insight to keep the devoted happy. One senses that we will be seeing more from this series in years to come. The ending of the sequel is obvious in that regard. He's hoping they go back to the recipe that made this original film semi-successful. It could only help.
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