In a way, you could call the 2004 action adventure "National Treasure" a kind of poor man's "The Da Vinci Code." Both stories are about frenzied hunts for a valued prize, in the one case a vast fortune hidden by the Knights Templar and in the other case an ancient secret hidden by...the Knights Templar. Of course, in the case of "The Da Vinci Code" the action is more serious and supposedly more intellectual than in "National Treasure." After all, "National Treasure" is a Jerry Bruckheimer film.
But that doesn't make "National Treasure" a bad film. Indeed, I found it better than the overly dour, dark-toned movie adaptation of "The Da Vinci Code," although that probably isn't saying a lot. Bruckheimer may be synonymous these days with mindless popcorn flicks, but there's always room for a good popcorn flick once in a while. Sure, some of Bruckheimer's films have been less than satisfactory; no doubt about it. After all, he turned things like "Armageddon," "Bad Boys," "Pearl Harbor," "Gone in Sixty Seconds," "Bad Company," "Kangaroo Jack," and "King Arthur" into overproduced bores. But "Top Gun," "Beverly Hills Cop," "The Rock," "Black Hawk Down," "Remember the Titans," and the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" had a lot going for them.
One of the main reasons "National Treasure" works as lightweight entertainment (given its significantly high silliness factor) is Nicolas Cage in the title role as a lifelong treasure hunter named Benjamin Franklin Gates. Cage has one of those personalities that enables him to fit right in with drama, comedy, or tongue-in-cheek adventure, such as we have here. He's not quite a Harrison Ford "Indiana Jones," but Cage in "National Treasure" has that kind of feel. Jon Turteltaub ("3 Ninjas," "While You Were Sleeping," "Phenomenon") ably directed the movie.
Oh, and it's no coincidence the Disney studios reissued the film in its present "2-Disc Collector's Edition" the same week they released the movie's sequel, "National Treasure: Book of Secrets," to theaters. Every opportunity, you know?
Anyway, Gates's whole family have been treasure hunters, the grandfather (Christopher Plummer) passing his knowledge and enthusiasm along to his son, Patrick Henry Gates (Jon Voight), and to his grandson, Ben. But somewhere along the line, Ben's father gave up on the idea of a vast treasure hidden in the Americas by the Knights Templar of Europe. Ben's father sought after the treasure for twenty years before deciding it was all a lot of hooey, a mere myth. Still, that didn't stop Ben, who grew up to defy his father and continue the search. Ben, like his grandfather, thinks the Knights Templar found a fortune, the treasure of all the world, buried under Solomon's temple; and that their associates eventually transported it to North America for safe keeping, where the modern extensions of the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, of whose number we may count many of the country's Founding Fathers, tucked it away for the past two hundred-odd years.
When the story begins, Ben is with his best friend and right-hand techie guy, Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), and his new patron, Ian Howe (Sean Bean), in the Arctic looking for a ship called the "Charlotte," which Ben believes holds a key to the mystery of the treasure. Ah, but we know that you can never trust Sean Bean in a movie anymore, not since "GoldenEye," "Ronin," and "The Lord of the Rings," so we know eventually that Ian's going to turn on his partners.
The Charlotte does hold a significant clue to the treasure's location, and that clue leads to another clue, which leads to another and another. The plot follows Ben and Riley as they scurry from the Arctic to Washington to Philadelphia to Wall Street in search of ever more keys to the mystery, all the while pursued by Ian, his thugs, and others.
The big setup at the beginning also gets Ben involved with a love interest. You've got to have a love interest in an action adventure, especially a tongue-in-cheek one as this one is. What Ben discovers early on is that the Masons wrote the most important clue of all in invisible ink on the back of America's most important document, the Declaration of Independence (don't even ask). But Ben makes the mistake of telling Ian this information just before Ian turns on him. Ian is all for stealing the Declaration. Ben, a true and honest patriot, is not. They part ways. But how to stop Ian? Ben determines to do what the founding fathers did when presented with such a dilemma. They did something wrong in order to do what they knew was right: They became traitors in the eyes of the British in order to create a new, free country. So Ben decides the only decent thing to do now to save the Declaration is to steal the precious document before Ian does! Do we hear echoes of "Mission Impossible" here? You bet.
So, how does the love interest come in? Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) is a director of the National Archives and in charge of the Declaration's well-being. She gets sucked unwillingly into the adventure, along with Ben's dad, and before the movie's 131 minutes are more than a half hour along, the lot of them are running from place to place around the Eastern seaboard, with Ian and his gang in hot pursuit. Anybody knows that if you put a good-looking guy and a good-looking girl together for any length of time in a movie, they're going to fall in love. Plus, did I mention the FBI? They get wind of what's going on, too, and begin chasing Ben, with no less than Harvey Keitel as the FBI agent in charge of the investigation. So we get a little of "North By Northwest" thrown into an Indiana Jones saga, with everybody, good and bad, chasing after the hapless hero, the reluctant heroine, and the doubting dad.
The film plays on every cliché and every stereotype imaginable, and part of its charm is playing them exactly to an audience's happiest expectations. Bartha, as Riley, is the comic sidekick. Kruger, as the brainy heroine, is beautiful and feisty. The romance is hate at first sight but develops slowly into something real. Even the epic soundtrack music by Trevor Habin, Paul Linford, and Don Harper reminds us of other such music, harking all the way back to Erich Wolfgang Korngold's "The Sea Hawk" and earlier.
Naturally, stuff blow up and chases rule. We expect that, as long as they aren't too corny or (as my good friend Tim Raynor would say) too cheesy, and they're not. And, naturally, every move the characters make is predictable. This is not a movie that is out to fool you or come in with a surprise ending. There's a comfortable, cozy feeling about knowing that everything you expect to happen does happen. Nevertheless, things develop in often spectacular fashion, and always in good fun. There is no condescending wink at the camera, no insistence that the film be taken as high camp.
The movie reminds us of the escapades in "Dr. No," with all the ventilator shafts in all the buildings of the world big enough for a man to crawl through. But the filmmakers do up everything with a perfectly straight face, the way the producers of the early Bonds did it, and the action comes off as both thrilling and amusing.
Although viewers will never mistake "National Treasure" for "Raiders of the Lost Ark," it can provide a few good hours of pure escapist fun. There is absolutely zero believability involved (like there are practically no guards at any of the national monuments or historical sites, and the heroes and villains can basically come and go as they please). But it's no matter. For the confirmed popcorn-flick fanatic, that's the way it's got to be. The movie has cliff-hangers and hairbreadth escapes galore and good humor throughout. In all, it's a lively ride.
As in Disney's first transfer of this movie, which seems to be identical, the video is very good. The Disney engineers present the film in its original 2.35:1 theatrical scope, measuring out at about a 2.23:1 anamorphic ratio across my widescreen Sony HD television, with its small degree of overscan. A reasonably high bit rate ensures that black levels are solid, white levels are clean, and colors are bright and deep. Object delineation is fairly sharp, moiré effects are at a minimum, and grain is minimal. There is maybe a slight glassiness about the image, and one can notice signs of minor edge enhancement watching close up, but it's hardly anything to complain about.
Dolby Digital 5.1 takes cares of the audio, and it, too, is quite good. One hears immediately the strong dynamic contrasts, the impact, the stereo spread, and the well-defined if not terribly deep bass response. The DD soundtrack renders the surround sound well, although most of the noises appear to come from the rear and little from the sides. Nonetheless, there are persuasive sounds you can find in the back speakers of creaking old ships, gunshots, multiple helicopter flyovers (this IS an action adventure, after all), groaning staircases, and the like.
The first disc in this 2-Disc Collector's Edition contains mostly the same bonus items as on the earlier single-disc edition, with some new preliminary material and the addition of a Spanish language track. As before, to tie all of the extras in with the movie, there is a multilevel treasure hunt you can play while watching them. On the Main Menu are four initial items: (1) An eleven-minute featurette, "National Treasure on Location," that takes you behind the scenes and into some of the location shooting; for instance, Utah filled in for the Arctic sequence. (2) Two deleted scenes, totaling over seven minutes, with an optional director's commentary; they are "Thomas and the President" and an "Extended Shaft Sequence." (3) A two-minute opening-scene animatic, again with an optional director's commentary, wherein Turteltaub explains that they created a CGI routine to give the filmmakers an idea of what a proposed, but never used, opening sequence might look like. And (4) an almost two-minute alternate ending, also with an optional director's commentary.
Now, here's the thing. If you play through the main four extras, the disc rewards you with clues to revealing the final four bonuses. However, if you don't like playing games, you can always cheat, look at the informational chapter insert, and go straight to many of the "hidden" bonuses. Among these extra extras, you get an eight-minute featurette, "Treasure Hunters Revealed," that uses interviews from and footage of real-life treasure hunters; "Riley's Decode This!" in which our friend Riley presents us with a series of puzzling challenges; and a segment on the history of "The Knights Templar."
The materials on disc one conclude with nineteen scene; Sneak Peeks at seven other Disney titles; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and French and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.
Disc two contains more items of interest. First, there are five additional, deleted scenes, with intros by director Jon Turteltaub, totaling about seven minutes. Second, there is a featurette called "Ciphers, Codes & Codebreakers," about twelve minutes on a brief history of the subject. Third, there's the featurette "Exploding Charlotte," six minutes on the special effects of the opening scene. Fourth, there is featurette "To Steal a National Treasure," about five minutes. And fifth, there is yet another featurette, "On the Set of American Treasure," six minutes of behind-the-scenes footage.
And that's about it. Since the second disc adds up to only a little over thirty-six minutes of extra material, I could not in all good conscience recommend the new edition to anyone who already owns the older version. On the other hand, if you don't already own the movie but were thinking about buying it, the new edition makes getting it now as good a time as ever.
Maybe because I had just finished reading "The Da Vinci Code" before watching "National Treasure" and because I foresaw a lot of parallels between the two works, I was eager to see what Bruckheimer and his team would do with essentially the same situations. Yes, I expected a lot more mindless action in "National Treasure," and that's exactly what I got. But I also found the film moved along at such a healthy clip, with no one in the cast seeming to take any of it seriously, that it quickly caught me up in the whole harebrained but warmhearted operation. Give a good popcorn flick a chance, and you can find yourself eating a whole lot of popcorn while passing an enjoyable time.