Is it even possible anymore to make a Jerry Bruckheimer-style movie with a straight face? Can we absorb another army-of-one rogue hero, another blindingly beautiful blond love interest with a PhD, another pile-driving musical score accompanied by percussive choppers, more priceless artifacts blown to smithereens, more stolen kisses in the face of imminent (as if) death? Is it true that someone can write a scene in which Nicolas Cage uses the Declaration of Independence as a shield against bullets, and that, somewhere, it'll be considered a great idea?
Technically, yes, as Disney demonstrates with its new high-octane, eighth-grade field trip to the nation's capital and beyond, "National Treasure." Whether it's a good idea is another story. "National Treasure" may be an action-packed tear through the wildly unsubstantiated side of American history, but it has all the soul, wit and originality of a major co-branding campaign.
Admittedly, portraying a modern America without total brand saturation would be a little like portraying ancient Rome without sandals, but a movie has to come from the right place to feel if not completely authentic then at least more or less organic in its own fakey, man-made way. But its prodigious marketing effort overwhelms "National Treasure," and not just because of its impressive number of promotional tie-ins. (McDonald's, Verizon, Visa, Kodak, Dodge and NASCAR are part of the cross-promotion, as are the cities of Washington and Philadelphia.) The movie is just too willing to veer off into memorable merchandising moments, such as the scene in which Cage and Diane Kruger, who plays the beautiful Dr. Abigail Chase, a National Archives curator, take a trip to Urban Outfitters for a flirty, age-inappropriate costume change in adjoining dressing rooms, and the gift-shop scene starring Visa. Could an Oscar be far off for the beguiling plastic rectangle?
Cage laconically plays Benjamin Franklin Gates (let's unpack that name later), a fifth-generation treasure hunter (or, as he likes to say, "treasure protector") whose family has been on the Knights Templar booty trail for generations, about as long as they've been mocked by "the respected historical community" (historians are such snobs). Ben's dad (Jon Voight) is understandably bitter about it, but Ben is a firm believer. According to family legend, which Grandpa (Christopher Plummer) imparts during a lengthy debriefing in a memento-strewn attic, the marauders of antiquity's hot spots — shown in flashbacks slaying Egyptians and Romans and looting what looks like Cecil B. DeMille's prop room — over the centuries amassed an impressive war chest, which was hidden, forgotten and rediscovered by the crusading medieval knights who eventually spawned the Freemasons. Given that many of America's Founding Fathers were Freemasons, and that the dollar is stamped with, well — you know, the family is convinced they must have known something about the location of the secret stash.
The start of the movie finds Ben and his trusty sidekick, techno-wizzy youth and constant commentator Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), on an Arctic expedition with his rogue millionaire benefactor, Ian Howe (Sean Bean), a sort of bad man's Richard Branson. Something tells me that if one were to find a mid-19th century British ship embedded in a polar ice cap, it might be under more than just three feet of snow. But then, I'm no expert, as Riley — who is one — likes to say before launching into a barrage of technical jargon without which treasure hunting might look disappointingly like a cakewalk. It's here that Ben figures out — in two seconds flat — that the map to the treasure is stamped in invisible ink on the back of the Declaration of Independence. A disagreement over what to do about that ensues — Ian wants to "borrow" it, Ben's patriotism rears — and following a series of explosions, Ian and Ben part company. The rest, as they say, is Bruckheimer.
"National Treasure" hits every action-adventure beat, zinger and emotional trope right on cue — although, when I saw it at a test screening, the most appreciative laughs came when Harvey Keitel walked on screen as the FBI's top dog. "National Treasure" owes a clear debt to Dan Brown's bestselling "The Da Vinci Code," but misses the point of any self-respecting conspiracy movie entirely — namely, to dig into the conspiracy and get freaky with it. The Yale-educated Ben, whose every utterance is a disquisition on American history, specifically its secret alternative history, never says word one about his alma mater's notoriously secret Skull & Bones. As for the New World Order? Never heard of it. If the script by Jim Kouf, Cormac Wibberley and Marianne Wibberley, recently of "Taxi" and "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle," respectively, is anything to go by, secret Masonic societies have spent the past several thousand years concocting nothing more ambitious than elaborate Easter egg hunts. Director Jon Turteltaub doesn't do much to correct that impression, although he does keep the clue-to-clue action moving at a good clip, particularly during the movie's last act.
There is one moment toward the end, as our heroes stand at Wall Street and Broadway, when I thought for a second we were about to be hit with some sudden irony that would reveal the treasure had long ago been transmuted by the likes of J.P. Morgan (a Mason!) and friends into the ephemeral streams of global capital that flow through the New York Stock Exchange. But no. "National Treasure" seems part of Disney's new strategy to produce what reporters love to call "edgier family fare" (i.e., movies that parents and kids whose teeth have grown in might enjoy together) so "National Treasure" is as doggedly hokey and ham-handed as a Disneyland ride — specifically that Indiana Jones one where the ball comes rolling at you on tracks.
Still, the movie is not entirely without its unintended ironies, especially when historical themes get bound up with dollars. "It's not about the money," Grandpa assures a young Ben shortly after initiating him in his dollar bill-studying, treasure-hunting tradition. Sure, Gramps. But money talks, and Benjamin Franklin Gates' name says it all.
MPAA rating: PG for action violence and some scary images.
Times guidelines: Pretty chaste, on the whole. A few encounters with Colonial remains could be mildly scary for the very young.
Nicolas Cage...Ben Gates
Diane Kruger...Abigail Chase
Justin Bartha...Riley Poole
Sean Bean...Ian Howe
Jon Voight...Patrick Gates
Christopher Plummer...John Adams Gates
Walt Disney Pictures presents, in association with Jerry Bruckheimer Films, released by Buena Vista Pictures. Director Jon Turteltaub. Producers Jerry Bruckheimer, Jon Turteltaub. Executive producers Mike Stenson, Chad Oman, Christina Steinberg, Barry Waldman, Oren Aviv, Charles Segars. Screenplay by Jim Kouf and Cormac Wibberley & Marianne Wibberley, story by Jim Kouf and Oren Aviv & Charles Segars. Director of photography Caleb Deschanel. Editor William Goldenberg. Costume designer Judianna Makovsky. Music Trevor Rabin. Production designer Norris Spencer. Supervising art director Geoff Hubbard. Art director Larry Hubbs. Set decorator Anne D. McCulley. Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes.In general release.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times