Every now and then a critic finds him or herself in total disagreement with almost everyone else who wields a poison pen. I know full well that most reviewers panned "National Treasure" as a) more tripe from Jerry Bruckheimer, b) a plot rip-off of "The Da Vinci Code," or c) an action film that just took way too many liberties with logic. Like, how in the world could anyone figure out all these wild and far-fetched clues that Freemasons from the late 1700s were apparently brilliant enough to come up with, assuming that genetics would produce even brainier people to decipher them years later?
Along with DVD Town's John J. Puccio, who wrote a positive review of the 2-disc version, I was one of the few critics who enjoyed "National Treasure." Seeing it again in 1080p High Definition hasn't changed my opinion one bit. I still think it's a fun mystery-adventure that has more in common with the serial silliness that "Raiders of the Lost Ark" invoked, a blast to a moviegoing past where cliffhangers existed just to give people like Pauline plenty of perils. Transplanted to contemporary times and using American treasures as stepping stones to a legendary Knights Templar treasure, the old-time serial format works well enough because the director and his cast strike just the right tone. Jon Turteltaub and his stars play it mostly straight but slightly tongue-in-cheek, and that perfectly suits a story about one man's search to find a treasure that's been part of family lore for generations.
Nicolas Cage plays Benjamin Franklin Gates a lot more understated than Harrison Ford did Indiana Jones, but it works. Gates has decided to prove a family story that he heard from his grandfather (Christopher Plummer), one which his own father, Patrick (Jon Voight) passed off as malarkey a long time ago. But after a prologue that relives the story Ben heard as a boy, we next see him on an expedition to find the first clue: Charlotte. In this case, it's a three-masted vessel that somehow ended up snowbound in the Arctic. Accompanying him is the requisite techno-geek sidekick that seems to be standard-issue for heroes these days, and Riley (Justin Bartha) is a likeable fellow to have along for the ride. But any fool can see that the sneeringly sinister Ian, who's bankrolling the expedition, has got double-cross on the brain. Since Ian is played by veteran bad guy Sean Bean ("Goldeneye," "Patrioit Games," "The Lord of the Rings"), you know it's only a matter of time.
And time here is the full 131 minutes, since Ian ends up racing Ben, Riley, Patrick, and an attractive documents specialist named Abigail (Diane Kruger) for the treasure in almost every sequence. As hokey as it gets, there's still something that gets the blood going when you see them go after the Declaration of Independence in order to find a clue that's printed on the back in invisible ink, or the Ben Franklin letters and glasses that they locate. For many viewers, this might be as close to the Library of Congress and Independence Hall that they get. While some have slammed this film for deriving its inspiration from Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, I think it's clever to combine a little U.S. history lesson with a slam-bang action thriller. Sure, it gets a little over-the-top (and over my head) when they start talking about Ottendorf ciphers and such, and some of the lines make you go "Huh?"--as when the bad guys leave Ben and Riley for goners in the Arctic wasteland and remark, after the ship explodes, "Let's get out of here before somebody sees the smoke." But more of this script from Cormac and Mariane Wibberley and Jim Kouf seems believable than not, and the dialogue does a fine job of helping flesh out the characters.
Harvey Keitel seems right on the money as the lead FBI agent who pursues Gates while full knowing that there's a deadlier third party he has to worry about, and Cage and Kruger seem well-matched. Some of the scenes (and sets) will absolutely remind you of the Indiana Jones sagas, while other scenes do smack of "The Da Vinci Code." But when you put it all together, "National Treasure" is an entertaining big-budget film. It's not the best Jerry Bruckheimer has ever bankrolled, but it's far from the worst.
In 1080p (AVC/MPEG-4 codec), "National Treasure" looks very good, though there are some scenes--particularly the snowy locations--where there's a little graininess and "noise." Colors have also been manipulated to set a mood, and I'm not sure that you could say that they seem all that natural in sequences like the treasure room. But that's a deliberate decision to go for stylized color, and moviegoers will find that this film looks pretty true to what was shown in theaters. Though some segments look a little soft, it's still the best this film has looked. "National Treasure" is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is even better, with a rollicking English PCM 5.1 uncompressed (48kHz/24-bit) featured soundtrack that really fills your TV room with resonant bass and crisp clear treble, pushing the sound nicely across the space. There's great natural use of the rear effects speakers, and the sound effects never are at war with the dialogue. Balance is great. Additional soundtrack options are English, French, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
Blu-ray exclusives are "Mission History: Inside the Declaration of Independence," and an all-new commentary with director Jon Turteltaub and actor Justin Bartha. Also included are features from the Collector's Edition DVD.
"Mission History" is a game . . . sort of. But it's a lot more complicated and slower than I would guess many people would have the patience for. First Riley in character gives you instructions via a blank screen, and then there appears a scanner over the Declaration of Independence, and two gizmos: a decoder (which has "decode" and "explore" functions) and a navigator (which has "playlist" and "navigate" options), the purpose of all this being to scan sections of the document and try to decode something or other. But as I said, it takes someone with more patience than I have, or maybe just someone who cares. I found it kind of blah.
Compared to the new commentary that director Jon Turteltaub did on "National Treasure 2," the full-length track on this new Blu-ray is also disappointing. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a bust, but it's darned close. Let's just say that I don't think Turteltaub will be inviting Justin Bartha to team with him anything time soon. Bartha babbles when he's not being silent, and has little to offer in the way of anecdotes or insights. At times, he's even counterproductive, as when he remarks "Oh my God" and Turteltaub says, "You can't say G-O-D. This is Disney." At some point, Turteltaub even chastises him (albeit playfully) for his non-contribution. It's a dull and pointless track that isn't nearly as rich and full of material as the one Turteltaub did with Jon Voight. So much for the Blu-ray exclusives.
Thankfully there are plenty of carryover features from the 2-disc Collector's Edition. They're all brief and relatively superficial, but some are still entertaining. There are seven deleted scenes playable with or without extensive commentary by Turteltaub, along with an alternate ending with intro. For those who care about such things, there's an animatic (animated storyboard) of the opening scene that's under three minutes. Then come the mini-features:
"Ciphers, Codes, and Codebreakers" introduces us to real-life cryptologists and gives a few interesting moments in the history of codes and a few basics in codebreaking. It's only 12 minutes long, so don't expect the equivalent of a matchbook correspondence course, but I still found it one of the more interesting ones. Same with "Treasure Hunters Revealed," which spotlighted the Mel Fisher operation in Key West as they talked about the treasure of the Atocha and her sister ship, and author-treasure hunter W. C. Jameson, who spent seven years of his life to locate a real "treasure of the Sierra Madres": 888 bars of silver that were stashed by outlaws. Two very different styles of treasure-hunting, but again, a feature so brief that you'll wish it were twice the length.
Other equally short features are on "Exploding Charlotte" (can a Jerry Bruckheimer film NOT have a bonus feature on pyrotechnics?), "Steal a National Treasure" (how they came up with the idea), "On the Set of American History" (cast/crew talking about how it feels to be so close to history), "National Treasure On-Location" (behind-the-scenes footage), and "The Templar Knights" (a very brief and incomplete primer on them and the Masons).
The menu screen itself is pretty nifty, with one of the lenses from Ben Franklin's glasses the cursor that moves to highlight menu items. I've seen menus where you couldn't tell what was being highlighted, and so this is a real pleasure. But with Blu-rays, what looks cool often takes twice as long, and that's the complaint here. It's a little slow. Same with the Trivia Track, which employs the same lens technique. You have to wait up to 30 seconds for another lens to pop up and finish a thought or sentence. It's not a very good track for the impatient, and for that matter, it's not a very good track period. All of the info is the kind of stuff an intern could Google. There's nothing here that shows any serious research.
"National Treasure" is everything you'd want from a popcorn movie. It's light romance, light comedy, light PG action violence, and a light romp through American history. But that's all it set out to be. In the cinematic world of cipher-quest-adventures, I'd rate "Raiders of the Lost Ark" a 10, "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" a 5, and "National Treasure" a 7. Though if I could have gotten into the spirit of the whole thing, I would have put those numbers into a cipher and led you to a few of Dean or John's reviews to get my final rankings!