Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) is ready for a fight when a mysterious treasure hunter named Mitch (played with dead-eyed, boat-payment-glee by Ed Harris) sullies the Gates name by suggesting Ben's ancestor was involved in the murder of President Lincoln. Joined by his father Patrick (Jon Voight), estranged girlfriend Abigail (Diane Kruger), and sidekick Riley (Justin Bartha), the team scoots around the world on the hunt for clues that will lead them to a lost city made of gold. Closely hunted by Mitch's men and various law enforcement officials (led by Harvey Keitel), Ben and the gang try to elude danger at every step on their quest to save the family from historical disgrace.
2004's "National Treasure" was a meticulously tedious adventure film that, while appealing in its monotone family entertainment value, failed to catch fire as it gasped its way through leaden stunt set-pieces and hokey historical recreations. I blame director Jon Turteltaub, who failed to show much aptitude for the art of the action sequence, not to mention his complete unease with subtlety.
"Book of Secrets," isn't truly a sequel to the first "Treasure" film, but something of an unofficial remake, trucking through almost the exact same story beats and awkwardly similar locations, even presenting an overwrought climax that's set inside a very familiar cavernous, ancient chamber. The script doesn't further the characters either; it merely corrals them snugly together for another big show of puzzling, jetting around the globe to mingle with famous landmarks. In fact, I defy anyone to sniff out an actual character arc in this picture.
Since "Treasure" wasn't exactly the bee's knees to begin with, watching "Book of Secrets" sink into total inactivity is demoralizing. While I'm thankful Turteltaub has dialed down the cheeseball historical flashbacks, he still can't direct an action sequence to save his life. The "Treasure" franchise has severe Indiana Jones overtones, yet Turteltaub is no Spielberg. Packed with car chases, "Book of Secrets" has all the excitement of a Chevy truck commercial, not helped in the least by Trevor Rabin's infuriating, unremitting score. Somebody run to Hollywood and slap the Casio out of this man's toxic hands.
The story takes the audience to the Library of Congress, Mount Rushmore, and the White House to meet the president, played by Bruce Greenwood (the king of middle-age nondescript acting). There are even diversions to London and France to keep the international audience involved. All the globetrotting doesn't mask the fact that the script is pushing too hard on the puzzle aspect of the franchise, orchestrating fairly outlandish situations of reveal that even the film itself doesn't seem to fully comprehend. This abandons the actors in a frozen state of exposition diarrhea, where every line merely states the obvious and explains the plot artificially. It's not acting, just explaining with an inch more zeal.
The only bright spot in "Book of Secrets" is provided by Helen Mirren, popping up here as Ben's mother and Patrick's testy ex-wife. While it's easy to bash the actresses for taking something so gaudily commercial after spending the last few years raking in trophies while portraying queens, she really adds a spark to the production, even elevating Voight in their numerous cantankerous moments. Mirren also provides adequate distraction from Justin Bartha's insufferable ad-libs. Yep, he's still comedy poison. Three years hasn't changed that.
"Book of Secrets" ends with watery chaos and a lot of noise, eager to hand the average moviegoer some bang for their buck. I don't resent an offering of large-scale mainstream entertainment, but this "sequel" is barely breaking a sweat, and that laziness makes for a very irritating feature film and an even worse excuse for an installment of a burgeoning blockbuster franchise.