Friday, December 28, 2007

National Treasure: Book of Secrets

It always sounds like “damning with faint praise” but sometimes an entertainment vehicle is just an entertainment vehicle. In this case, National Treasure: Book of Secrets is just a fun movie. In the next few paragraphs, I will talk about some of the things that didn’t make sense or just bugged the crap out of me, but ultimately, when the movie was over, I was smiling and wondering about the possibility of another sequel.

For instance, Ed Harris’s character arc made no sense at all. He is set up as the head of a mercenary organization apparently lusting after a huge reward for finding Cibola, the lost city of gold. But in the last third of the movie, he makes it clear that he just wants a place in history for his family name. He acts as a team member and rescues characters he has harassed throughout the rest of the movie. So if his goal was just to find Cibola, why didn’t he approach the Gates family to start with? Why the underhanded accusations of treason? Most of the story could have remained the same, but then we wouldn’t get the car chase sequences we got.

Oh, product placement—how did we ever survive so long without you? At some point, I expected to see a TV commercial saying “The fictional Gates family, intrepid researchers of historical antiquities, drives Mercedes-Benz. Even backwards.” I think it’s lovely that the new Benz has a rear-mounted back-up camera so that a driver apparently doesn’t have to use his rear-view mirror. But does it have to be a plot point for the movie? And when the elder Gates, played by Jon Voight, goes to do research on the internet, is it necessary that we see a completely useless MSN splash screen (which somehow appeared at least twice as big as it does if you actually go to their web site)? Ambiguous search result screens would be fine, I think. And while I couldn’t catch which cell phone the Gates were using, isn’t it nice to know that it can be so easily cloned and used by your arch-nemesis?

Oh, there are plot holes galore. The legend of Cibola that the movie tells says that a Spanish servant was led to Cibola by Native Americans but when he tried to retrace his footsteps for later Spanish explorers, he couldn’t find the city. Never mind that a cursory search for information about Cibola tells a completely different story, but it’s easy to see why the servant failed, especially if he was wandering around Florida and eventually the Southwest when all along Cibola was in South Dakota. And when exactly did the Olmecs make it so far north?

Nevertheless, the movie is a lot of fun, eventually convincing you to set aside your logical processes and go along for the ride. Nicholas Cage has his moments, though none so scenery-chewing as I was led to believe it was going to be. Harvey Keitel and Helen Mirren are under-used but good in the time they are given. Justin Bartha’s comic sidekick role is too confining also, though he makes a good use of it. The interaction between the main characters feels real and unforced, and the humor is also natural. There’s only two extended chase sequences, and they are quickly disposed of.

The real star is the romp through American history. I’m sure Google got tons of hits on “Resolute desks” in the first weekend the movie was out, and there is probably a lot more interest in the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore than there has been in a while. These can’t be bad things, I think.

The movie ends with a clear set-up for another sequel, and I wouldn’t be at all disappointed to see it. Sometimes, it’s enough to escape.

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