Who knew faux history could be so much fun?

James Plath's picture

Jerry Bruckheimer scored again in 2004 with "National Treasure," an Indiana Jones update that took treasure-hunting adventure out of the Nazi era and incorporated ad hoc lessons in American history. That blockbuster had an estimated budget of $100 million, but grossed almost twice that. And "National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets" did even better at the box office.

Sequels are often synonymous with failure, but "Book of Secrets" is just as entertaining as the first film, despite a structural familiarity--or maybe because of it. Bruckheimer and director Jon Turteltaub were no doubt betting that what appealed to fans of the first film would appeal to them in a second. So once more you have an Indy/Belloc style competition between Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage), who's part treasure-hunter and partly out to prove the innocence of his ancestors, and an evil-minded fellow who just wants the treasure. The villain this time is admirably played by Ed Harris, whose character, Mitch Wilkinson, sets things in motion by producing a missing page from John Wilkes Booth that not only challenges the stories that Ben Gates and his professor father Patrick (Jon Voight) have been telling, but links their ancestor to the Lincoln assassination.

Instead of sites related to the Declaration of Independence this new quest takes Gates and his new nemesis to Paris and London, as well as Mount Rushmore and Washington, D.C. And as with the first film, there are daring, hard-to-believe break-ins of historical sites that are crawling with tourists. Once more, the hunt leads to an Indy-style secret construction and another seemingly bottomless pit to add a little traditional suspense to the more contemporary shoot-outs and car chases. Returning for another ride are Voight, Diane Kruger (who's now Ben's ex-girlfriend Abigail Chase), and Justin Bartha as Ben's hacker-whiz sidekick Riley Poole. Harvey Keitel also returns as FBI Agent Sadusky. New to the action is Helen Mirren, who plays Ben's mother, Prof. Emily Appleton. Voight and Mirren are actually funny in their cantankerous avoidance of each other, and the way in which all of the peripheral characters are swept up in the action and the way everything revolves again around treasure and the Freemasons is an absolute knock-off of the first film. And yet, it's still a lot of fun.

But if you thought it was a little too easy for Ben and his rival to grab a national treasure like the Declaration of Independence, you might find your eyes rolling involuntarily when you see how effortless it is to pull off little charade-raids at Buckingham Palace and the White House. In Bruckheimer's world, kidnapping the President is as easy as blowing up a building or staging shoot-outs just outside Buckingham Palace and car chases through narrow London streets--real car chases with real stunt drivers.

The funny thing is, there are just enough historically accurate elements thrown in where you believe the whole package. Using actual sites (among them a historic Masonic Temple in Alexandria, Virginia) helps a great deal, so when we see a retelling of the Lincoln assassination that seems right out of the history books and learn about another group that was real-Knights of the Golden Circle, a group of southerners who wanted to annex Mexico and make it a slave state-we're perfectly willing to buy into the rest of the story. Same with those twin desks made from timbers of the HMS Resolute, one of which resides in Buckingham Palace and the other in the Oval Office. Since those desks really exist, we're ready to believe that each is a Chinese puzzle box as well. That's the genius of blending fiction and fact, and part of what makes "National Treasure 2" another winner.

The riddles this time are as entertainingly impossible as they were the first time around, and the idea of the Mother of all treasure hordes is an appealing one--especially when you center it in the New World and somehow link Olmec culture to conspiracy theories, the Freemasons, and Lincoln's assassination.

Cage was nominated for a Razzie this year, but I think that's unfair. He makes for a lot straighter and more Everyman hero than Harrison Ford's larger-than-life Indiana Jones, but an Indy clone would look helplessly cartoonish in a contemporary setting. You believe half of what's going on because Cage is so ordinary. He and Bartha work well together in the banter department, as do Mirren and Voight, and Cage and Kruger. And in films like this, banter is important. Too cheesy and the film can also seem like a cartoon. Too serious and it goes the other way. Banter sets the tone, and this screenplay by the Mariane and Cormac Wibberley (who did the first "National Treasure," as well as "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" and "The Shaggy Dog") strikes just the right balance of seriousness and comedy. For a fast-moving adventure, the editing and close-quarters cinematography are also extremely well done. And that's saying something for a sequel.

For the most part, the 1080p picture (AVC/MPEG-4 codec) looks very good. Presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio, it delivers a high level of detail and a pleasing sensation of 3-dimensionality, especially in scenes where Patrick appears (I guess Voight is a 3-D kind of guy). This is a film that has been tweaked so that the colors convey a certain mood, and there's a golden-brown caste to many of the scenes. Some of the external scenes with high action have a little noise and possibly compression artifacts along the edges, but overall it's a nice picture--certainly nothing I'd complain about. I sometimes feel that we can be overly critical on video or audio reporting, where if you just sat back and watched the film you probably wouldn't notice a thing.

Disney went with an English Dolby TrueHD (48kHz/24-bit) featured soundtrack on this title, whereas the first "National Treasure" sported (to my mind) a more dynamic PCM audio. But I think there must have been advances in TrueHD over the past year, because the last few discs I've reviewed with TrueHD had a much livelier sound and better spread across the speakers than earlier discs. This one has a nice balance of treble and bass, and it's capable of handling the subtle tones just as well as the brassy and bold action scenes.

A nice package of extras are included, but I'll warn you right now, unless you have a player with Profile 1.1 capability you won't be able to access "Book of History: Fact and Fiction of National Treasure." Right now, Blu-ray technology is in such flux that I'm not about to upgrade to a new player until one is available that can handle 1.1 and the new BD-Live features, so I couldn't access this feature. The studio described it as a separate video stream integrated into the main feature which shows icons that transport you to featurettes. The interactivity also includes pop-up questions and a running tally that rewards trivia buffs with additional features at the end.

I did enjoy the commentary track with Turteltaub and Voight. They manage to have a good time while also giving an awful lot of information. I particularly appreciated the way they talked about what was real and what was invented, and though I'm usually not a fan of "we shot this scene in such-and-such-a-place," when you're dealing with well-known locations it's fun hearing all the details. A better-than-average commentary, for sure.

Seven deleted scenes are included, playable with or without commentary. Some directors treat these in a perfunctory manner, but Turtletaub really spends time on them, offering long intros to the scenes and reiterating his philosophy that "Movies are too long." Editors are gods, in his world, and he gives credit to them in a number of places on the bonus features.

Aside from an okay outtakes/blooper reel, the other main feature is really an eight-part, hour-long "making of" feature that covers the usual bases. What makes it worth watching, though, is that the outfit that put them together really doesn't skimp on behind-the-scenes footage. There's a lot here. "Secrets of a Sequel" hits the basics, while "The Book of Secrets: On Location" takes you abroad, "Street Stunts: Creating the London Chase" shows you what it took to do the impossible, "Inside the Library of Congress" gives you a behind-the-scenes tour, and features on "Underground Action," "Cover Story: Crafting the Presidents' Book," "Evolution of a Golden City," and "Knights of the Golden Circle" talk about the blending of fact and fiction. They're all quite watchable, but I have to admit that my favorite was hearing from the head of Buckingham Palace and police security about the four police checks that every cast and crew member had to pass. "Sadly," he laughs, "not everyone made it."

Bottom Line:
Because it's so formulaic and because there are moments when logic stretches like Silly Putty, "National Treasure 2" is one of those films that's more popcorn movie than it is a classic. But when you add location filming and just enough action to stir things up, and when you throw in a lot of facts as well, it's a pretty big bag to munch on. Who knew faux history could be so much fun?


Film Value