Shiny Shelf

National Treasure

By Jon de Burgh Miller on 11 December 2004

Nicolas Cage returns with a brainless yet fun action adventure (from the writers of ‘Bad Boys 2′ and ‘Charlie’s Angels 2′) that asks the question, ‘what if the founding fathers of America had hoarded a vast treasure away from the British, and what if the map to that treasure was hidden on the Declaration of Independence’?

Cage plays Benjamin “Franklin” Gates (it gets better, don’t worry) whose family has kept the secret to the treasure for generations. He sets out to find it and along the way picks up a comedy sidekick and a beautiful girlfriend who despairs at his unorthodox methods of sounding problems. Sounds familiar? It should do. ‘National Treasure’ is more explicitly than any film of recent times trying to be ‘Indiana Jones’ – the lead character even argues why the treasure belongs in a museum.

In the same way that before ‘GoldenEye’ returned James Bond to prominence there was a slew of secret agent films to fill in the gap, from time to time we get these archaeology pictures (most notably with ‘The Mummy’ and ‘Tomb Raider’). Joe Turteltaub is obviously dying to direct an ‘Indy’ flick, and this is almost certainly as close as he’s going to get, but despite the warning signs it’s actually not a bad film at all really.

The high-concept behind the film is clever and implemented fairly plausibly, but the concept sets up a high expectation to live up to.

While this is clearly supposed to be this years ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, Director Joe Turteltaub (of ‘3 Ninjas’ fame) has obviously realised the best way to avoid screwing up is to play things safe, resulting in a safe family offering from Disney that takes few risks. The production of the movie is competent but there’s no real standout points. The direction is very safe, the actors are decent enough but nothing special and the action sequences are fun but unmemorable. Nevertheless, Turteltaub manages to work aspects of American history into a formulaic action adventure that provides enough twists, turns and intrigue to hold the audience’s attention until the very end.

Despite the inevitable Hollywood inaccuracies that crop up from time to time, one has to applaud any film that gets its target audience interested in history. Several of the elements the film plays on are rooted in historical fact (such as the Masonic basis America was built on) and the huge rise in tourism Washington DC has enjoyed over the last few weeks shows that however ropy, this movie has done for American history what ‘Indiana Jones’ did for university archaeology applications and what the likes of ‘The Alamo’ failed to do so spectacularly.

In fact, at times the movie seems like one big educational tourist promotion film for America’s historical landmarks. Washington DC provides tokenistic location filming at all the tourist hotspots – the National Archives, the Lincoln Monument, Capitol Hill… in fact, the film seems so keen to feature these places that even when having been on the run from the FBI for ages, the place where the heroes hide out has a lovely view of the Washington Monument, barely moments from the archives they were supposed to be running away from. It’s ridiculous, but moments like these are surprisingly scarce given the room for error in a project like this, and overall disbelief can be suspended fairly successfully for the movie’s duration.

‘National Treasure’ isn’t going to win any Oscars and offers little beyond the basic high concept that hasn’t been done in a hundred other films, but by following formulae which are repeated because they work, Turteltaub has ended up with a film that is definitely worth seeing despite not really offering an awful lot beyond the basic exterior. A lot like those Washington landmarks, come to think of it.

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By Jon de Burgh Miller

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