Nicolas Cage remains a puzzler to me. The guy used to make the daring, semi-independent film and occasionally take on the big studio project as a means of taking on his more modest yet passionate visions. But over the last couple of years, he's seemed to fully embrace the big-budget blockbuster with mixed results. This is fine, but it does lead me to an off-topic frustration about the financial reality of Hollywood. Sure, the first National Treasure film made a bunch of money, but that doesn't necessarily mean that those responsible for the success of the first film should reunite for the second, right? Well, the creative team behind the first National Treasure returned for this second grab in the proverbial cookie jar.
And when the band gets back together, they really do get back together. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer brings back Cage, and stars Diane Kruger, Justin Bartha, Jon Voight, Harvey Keitel and director Jon Turtletaub (Cool Runnings) for the second act. Marianne and Cormac Wibberly put together the screenplay for the second film, and the duo contributed to the story of the first one. In Book of Secrets, the characters have moved on from their initial adventure. Ben (Cage) and Abigail (Kruger) have broken up, while Riley (Bartha) has penned a book about other myths, mysteries and historical adventures. One day, Ben speaks at a university about a long-rumored conspiracy to kill President Lincoln, when he is challenged on his assertions by Mitch Wilkinson, a rival adventurer who has a page from a valued book which seems to link Ben's family to the plot. Filling the pseudo Sean Bean role of Wilkinson is Ed Harris (Pollock). And while they are familiar with the plot, it also leads to a long-talked about City of Gold, located somewhere in America that Ben and his father Patrick (Voight) have to consult Ben's mother and Patrick's ex-wife Emily (Helen Mirren, The Queen) for an added pointer or two when it comes to solving the mystery.
So you've got the framework for the introduction of the new cast members and the basic framework for the story, so the next logical step would be to make the historical heists more grander and epic and the storylines more bombastic and audacious. Sure enough, that's what the cast and crew of Book of Secrets do. Ben and Abigail get into Buckingham Palace and the Queen's private office to examine a desk! Ben gets exclusive access into the Oval Office to examine a corresponding desk for a clue! Ben temporarily kidnaps the President, after the White House can't book a hotel room or two for the most powerful man in the country on several weeks notice! But hey, when we're talking about a Bruckheimer-produced action film, there is a certain amount of logic you have to leave at the door, whether you like it or not. So instead of stoking that cynicism, what Turtletaub et al. give the viewer is a subtle enamoring with the unknown. The "Book of Secrets" mentioned in the title is supposed to be a "President's Eyes Only" collection of information and answers to some of the most baffling mysteries and secrets in American history. Does a book like that exist? Who knows, but wouldn't it be cool if it did?
Along with this, it's refreshing to see that Book of Secrets is a few minutes shorter than its predecessor and spends its time focusing on the chase and the quest, while keeping the whole "Gates name redemption" subplot in its rightful place in the background, as opposed to the first film, where Ben's personal quest was given more attention and became a long-winded distraction as a result. You get a film that's more focused on the action, including an underrated car chase sequence though the London streets, and from there, the film's events transpire over a wide variety of locales, both foreign and domestic, culminating with the City of Gold's true location. And since it's a film based on American history, I'll leave it to you to figure out where it's held.
It must be nice for an actor to return to a character that they've already established, because there's not a heckuva lot left to be flushed out. In the case of the returning stars, things are pretty much on the surface without a lot of new character development, and the performances are serviceable. As far as the new stars go, well Mirren doesn't get as much screen time as she probably should, but should they complete the National Treasure trilogy (with fingers crossed as sarcastically as possible), she'll get a little more time to stretch her acting legs. The Harris role is a little more of a puzzler. Maybe I was confused, because the last time Harris and Cage boogied in a Bruckheimer film, some poison gas was part of the process. However, during a lot of instances in the third act, I found myself wondering at what point Harris' character was going to turn and have some sort of character epiphany, and he seemed like the instances to prove that he was a bad guy were a little forced. Maybe things will change up a little in the future for this franchise's antagonist.
So with the same cast and the same basic story, how'd Book of Secrets do? Not too shabbily actually, making over $100 million more worldwide than the first installment, further guaranteeing some sort of National Secrets 3: Return of the King sequel in our future. So I hope among hopes that Cage, Bruckheimer and gang quit while they're ahead. After seeing the supplemental material and a lot of times where finished scenes would be given to the cast on set moments before they were about to shoot said scene, it's clear to me that they're playing with house money.
The Blu-ray Disc:
2.40:1 widescreen with the AVC MPEG-4 codec like the last film, and this one surprisingly seems to lack a little bit more than its bigger sister. There's still a lot of detail to gain from various images in the film, especially in Harris' tight shots (the guy looks like Cal Ripken Sr., for pete's sake), the source material is as good as it gets. There are various times where it seems like blacks are not as deep as the first, and the level of background image depth and detail isn't as good either. When you consider all of the film's shooting locations, you'd expect the image to pop with a multi-dimensional feel which, sadly, I just didn't get here. Don't get me wrong, this is a solid presentation, however I was expecting something great to be honest.
It surprises me a little to see a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track attached to the film, as the first National Treasure possessed a PCM soundtrack. The soundstage in Book of Secrets seems to be a little less active on the surround side of things, but almost every action in the film has some low end bass attached. And during a key sequence where Cage has to leap to reach a ladder and not be caught on a collapsing floor area, your fillings will probably rattle. However, I just didn't get the same of ambient noise as was present in the first film and at the end of the day, I'd say that the soundtrack is slightly beneath the quality of the first, even if there are separate 5.1 surround options for English, Spanish and French with this disc.
Disney puts a fair amount of effort in all of its Blu-ray titles, and National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets is another one of said efforts. Starting with the BS exclusive supplemental material, we've got an interactive game and trivia section all rolled in as a running subtitle option over the feature. The piece, named "Book of History," allows you to access information and trivia on the historical figures and events, some of it text based, some of it in voiceover, and there is the occasional question that you answer to determine your historical knowledge. You can also stop and save your progress at any point too, and it's a decent feature overall. The two deleted scenes are incorporated into the others, making for a total of seven (20:27). There's a clue that was excised from the final cut which wasn't plot relevant and an event with Ben, Mitch and the FBI that bordered on silly, but other than that, there's not much here. Turtletaub and Voight join forces for a commentary that is very director heavy, as he discusses whatever occurred on set, along with the whole "real vs. reel" discussion. Voight chimes in occasionally, but this is a little more forced than the track on the first film which included Bartha and was much more enjoyable. After a blooper and outtake reel (5:03) with a lot of line flubs and general goofiness, the featurettes follow, starting with "Secrets of a Sequel" (6:51), where the cast and crew talk about coming back to the characters and stories before devolving to the requisite group love-in. "The Book of Secrets: On Location" (9:46) covers the pros and cons of shooting in the international locations and the cast and crew's thoughts on same. Turtletaub discusses why it was important to shoot at those locations and brings up some trivia that happened at each area. "Street Stunts: Creating the London Chase" (9:41) breaks down the chase with the crew, while the stuntpeople discuss their roles and what's important to accomplish, along with their preparations for the piece. There's even a sequence in the piece that wasn't put into the film. "Inside the Library of Congress" (8:41) is just that, a look in the building by various staff members, along with the cast's thoughts on the location. I don't give this piece enough credit, as it's actually worth spending some time with. "Underground Action" (6:47) looks at the set design, while "Creating the President's Book" (4:32) takes a look at the prop that become the vaunted piece of history. Interesting to note is that Bruce Greenwood (Firehouse Dog), who plays the President for a handful of scenes in Book of Secrets, gets interviewed for the piece, go figure. "Evolution of a Golden City" (10:19) examines how the City of Gold became, well, the City of Gold, with discussions on set design and thoughts from the cast, and the crew talks about the challenges of pulling it all together, while some visual effects team members talk about what they did to fill in the gaps. Even "The Knights of the Golden Circle" are covered in real life, even if the piece is only 2:49. I should note, by the way, that all of the footage is presented in high definition for your dining and dancing pleasure, including the previews for Wall-E and The Nightmare Before Christmas, which round 'er out.
As another small note, there are four easter eggs that accompany various supplemental material, one where Turtletaub and Cage discuss their longstanding friendship (2:12) and others that cover the visual effects (0:45), stunt driving (0:54) and set design (1:12). Simply highlight the deleted scenes, "On Location," "Street Stunts" and "Evolution of a Golden City" featurettes, and you'll see a historical artifact pop up on the right. Move your right arrow to it, it should glow somehow, and you're cooking with gas.
Well it's not like you don't know what you're getting when it comes to National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets. You're getting an adventure/quest type of film with some recognizable names set against the background of some very familiar places. The technical merits are acceptable, and the extras are involved and not too bad, and besides, a lot of places are probably selling this as part of a Blu-ray two pack priced to go with the first one, so why not pick it up, right?