Friday, January 04, 2008

The 'secret' is out: 'National Treasure' is just OK

Before turning your cell phone off as you enter “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” it would be a good idea to shut off your brain and check your cynicism at the door. Too much thinking will kill your chances of enjoying the sequel to 2004’s “National Treasure.”

Audiences seem to be enjoying the latest adventure of treasure hunter Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage). For the second week in a row “Book of Secrets” has been No. 1 at the box office, and it has brought in nearly $144 million thus far. Who am I to disagree with numbers like that? For my money, though, the new Goofy short that preceded the film was far more entertaining. Then again, I've always had a soft spot for Goofy.

“Book of Secrets” follows the formula that undermines many sequels. It attempts to recreate the previous film, but makes everything bigger and, in theory, better. This logic rarely works and if anything has the opposite effect on a film’s quality.

The original “National Treasure” had a silly charm and entertained with its audacious premise that the Declaration of Independence doubled as a treasure map. Like its predecessor, “Book of Secrets” plays like a lighter version of “The Da Vinci Code.” Fans of the first “National Treasure” probably won’t be let down, but the film doesn’t try to do anything new, except now the treasure hunt is a globe-trotting one.

The plot has Ben Gates searching for a city of gold to prove that one of his ancestors wasn’t involved in the assassination of Lincoln. It all has something to do with John Wilkes Booth’s diary, and the clues will send Gates and his colleagues from Washington to Paris to London and back again.

It is obvious that this material is ridiculous, but the film knows it is and that’s what salvages the film from being a complete bore. Cage’s Gates has an uncanny ability to figure out the most obscure meaning of any clue within minutes, sometimes seconds, and the film has some fun with that.

“Book of Secrets” has quite possibly the best cast of any film in 2007, and includes Jon Voight (returning as Gates’ father), Ed Harris, Helen Mirren (as Gates’ mother) and Harvey Keitel (returning as an FBI agent). Diane Kruger as Gates’ love interest and Justin Bartha as Gates’ sidekick also return. Sadly, a lot of the acting seems flat. This feels like a paycheck movie, as in the actors can’t wait to finish the scene and cash their checks.

The film sets up the Kruger-Cage and Mirren-Voight couplings in parallel bickering matches that aren’t particularly funny. Mirren and Voight fare marginally better of the two pairings, but in both cases it is more annoying than amusing.

One could contend that since this isn’t trying to be a great film that there is no point in knocking the acting. The problem isn’t that the acting isn’t Oscar worthy, but rather that there is lack of joy in the performances. Take for example Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush in the first “Pirates of the Caribbean.” There was an excitement when they were on the screen. They were clearly having fun and relishing creating vivid characters. That is sorely lacking in “Book of Secrets.” In Cage’s performance there are hints of that magic, but they are far too limited.

In spite of all the complaining, “Book of Secrets” isn’t a bad movie; it is just a rather ordinary one. It plugs along well enough but never raises hairs or tingles spines. It makes for a diverting two hours, but nothing more.

There is one cool sequence on a teetering platform, a couple laugh-out-loud moments and a few grin-inducing moments of cleverness. There is a very necessary place for mindless escapism, and “Book of Secret” fills that role. It just could fill it so much better than it does. Oh well, there’s always “National Treasure 3.”

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