Title: National Treasure: Book of Secrets
Genre: Action, Adventure, Family
Director: Jon Turteltaub
Screenwriters: Marianne Wibberley, Cormac Wibberley
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger, Justin Bartha
I don’t mean to be glib here, but: Oh, dear lord. I was charmed by the fleet, goofy National Treasure, but with National Treasure: Book of Secrets, this unexpected franchise seems to have become a clearinghouse for Things You Wouldn’t Expect to See A-List Actors Say With a Straight Face. For example: “In conclusion, if Thomas Gates hadn’t burned that page from John Wilkes Booth’s diary, the assassins of Abraham Lincoln would have found an enormous treasure of gold, and the North might not have won the Civil War.” Or how about: “Mount Rushmore was a cover-up!”
It’s not just that it’s stupid; stupid we could work with. But it’s stupid and bland and incurious. It’s perfectly content with its stupidity, and isn’t even trying. I tend not to care a lick about plausibility, but what are we to make of a shot of the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building, with a sign reading “J. Edgar Hoover FBI Buiding” prominently displayed in the foreground of the frame, followed immediately by a title card reading “J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building”? Or this comment, shouted by treasure hunter and puzzle solver extraordinaire Benjamin Gates, as he and his cronies stand in the middle of some sort of chamber inside a mountain, surrounded by waterfalls and with water rushing all around them: “All this water has to go out somewhere! Otherwise it would just build up!” Welcome to the bi-annual globe-spanning treasure hunt for idiots. And also the movie of the year for people who’ve always wanted to see Helen Mirren and Jon Voight swing across a pit on a vine.
One of the things that was either obnoxious or cute (in 2004 I went with “cute”) about National Treasure was Ben Gates’ uncanny ability to get from a clue to the solution of any “puzzle” in roughly fifteen seconds via several dubious leaps of logic. So if he saw an inscription on some stone tablet somewhere that read “peanut,” he would think out loud: “Peanut… peanut… George Washington Carver… butchers… butchers… FRANCE! THE LEANING TOWER OF PISA!” And then he and his fellow treasure hunters would be at the Leaning Tower of Pisa in the next shot, carrying on the same conversation, because not for them the hunting for advance bargain fares on Expedia. In any event, Gates’ prodigious skill is on display once again in Book of Secrets, except this time it verges on self-parody: when Gates goes from a line of poetry engraved on the Statue of Liberty (the one in Paris) that reads something like “across the sea, the twins stand resolute” to the realization that the next clues are hidden on a pair of desks carved as a gift to Queen Victoria from the H.M.S. Resolute, I thought it had to be a joke, the screenplay playing with an element of the first film that made people smile. (Actually, first I panicked for a second because I thought the next clue would involve the World Trade Center towers.) But no. He really did guess it — and of course he was spot-on.
One of the biggest problems here, beyond the film’s conviction that we are all retarded, is that everything seems to go right for our heroes, every time. They don’t have more-than-momentary setbacks, only lots of improbable breakthroughs. It’s a suspense-killer, which might have been okay except that, as should be evident, Book of Secrets couldn’t be less interested in the logistics of the way our ultra-resourceful treasure hunters operate. Whatever they need, they get, since the resident computer geek (Justin Bartha) can hack into anything this side of a refrigerator, and Ben always has a flawless plan at the ready. Guys, adventure flicks where every conflict is guaranteed to be false are boring.
There’s a point when Gates learns about the “President’s Book of Secrets,” which contains — you guessed it — all of the nation’s secrets. “The only way you’re gonna get to see that book is if you get elected President,” he’s told, and I can only imagine how much more interesting the film would have been if the rest of it had been devoted to his trying to get elected President. Instead, we get another hour or so of the same brain-dead tedium. (When they finally find the Book of Secrets, by the way, they flip past the truth about Area 51 and the Kennedy assassination because, Gates insists, “we don’t have time!” Hello?!) I’m not sure exactly what happened between the eminently tolerable National Treasure and its mind-numbing, nearly unwatchable sequel. Maybe it’s that the second film is an absolute retread of the first, down to the running time, making it seem cynical instead of earnest. But it’s the year’s worst pop filmmaking.