National Treasure (2004)

So I went to see National Treasure today. Why so late – two weeks after it opened? No, my decision had nothing to do with the fact the movie stayed on top of the box office for 2 straight weekends (and possibly will stick around a bit more). I really wanted to see this flick ever since I saw the trailer – which was very recently. In fact, if you think about it, the movie kinda crept under the radar, and boom – big promotion, talk shows, loud trailers, which is all very typical of Bruckheimer. And, before you turn your nose, please remember that while Jerry Bruckheimer has delivered us some stinkers, he’s also been involved with some great movies and TV shows, and I believe, Nicolas Cage has chosen very well this time.

National Treasure is being compared to Mummy and Indiana Jones. I like both franchises, and would feel very protective of anyone trying to cash in on them, or even worse, bring them down by creating an ugly sibling. I went into the theater expecting an admirable homage, but being very worried about a good thing that will any minute turn out boring and plain dumb. I was surprised. First of all – the movie is not like the two big franchises mentioned above. Maybe in spirit, but definitely not in execution. There are parallels, but they are so far away from the originals (and quite far from the last adventure genre fiasco – Tomb Raider), that you cannot think of the movie as homage. It has its own universe, its characters, and as you may have guessed it, an open ending that will result in a sequel.

Basically, the movie is about a group of treasure hunters who are looking for the loot that has been protected by generations of masons, who left various clues to finding it. Along the way, there’s an interesting chronology of American history, and some current day philosophies thrown in. Is there a treasure, or is it all an elaborate myth? Do the clues really exist on the dollar bills, on the Liberty Bell, and ultimately, the Declaration of Independence? It’s an interesting subject, and many books have covered it. Now, it’s all compressed in a movie format, with a few explosions thrown in. You’re thinking a mindless popcorn adventure? Sure, but so was Indy, in its time.

First of all, unlike in Indy, there are no spiders in this movie. Considering all the tombs we see, and all the ancient hallways we pass, not a single spider on the backs of any of the characters. Same goes for snakes, rats and bats. Harrison Ford’s Indy hated them, Brendan Frasier’s Rick had a few phobias, but safe to say, Nick Cage doesn’t have to channel the great adventurers to deliver a cheesy line. Now that I think about it, there are no gruesome traps – no rolling boulders, no poisoned arrows, no revolving blades. But there are plenty of treasure maps, secret codes, clues and chases. And that, I think, is what makes a good adventure film.

Nothing’s ever overblown into a “save the world” scenario, the damsel in distress is not necessarily a love interest (and not constantly in distress), the sidekick is not a one-dimensional geek, and a villain is not heartless. I can list other cliches that you won’t find in this movie, but suffice to say there are a lot that could have been used, but weren’t. Kudos to the writers who didn’t take a shortcut on the character development. I also liked that nobody was written too well – with deep concerns for humanity, and the history of history. A cop acts as a cop, and a rich villain does what rich villains do – spare no expense to get the loot.

It’s simple without being insultingly stupid. Even with the occasional plot holes, the movie kept going at a good speed and kept playing it straight for me to stay interested and engaged. Besides, what better story than a modern day treasure chase that ends up in New York, under Wall street? C’mon, of course it’s campy, but it’s the kinda camp we all can relate to. Now I just have to visit NYC one more time – maybe there is a reason why Wall street is protected so well. Besides, I realized by the end of the movie that they sneaked in quite a lot of history (or pseudo-history) into the film, which would have been boring if the story and characters didn’t engage.

Speaking of characters, Nick is not the only one carrying the film. John Voight plays his reluctant father very well – “don’t you get it, son, it’s a clue after a clue, when are you going to realize there is no treasure?”. The damsel in distress (Diane Kruger) is also not a cardboard cutout. She has a day job, and lives in a real world – and it takes Nick a while to convince her of his story. Imagine if somebody walked into your office (you’re a security director of the national archives – or something life that), and informed you that someone’s going to steal the Declaration of Independence – because there’s a treasure map on it – an invisible one… Believe me, this only sounds ridiculous if they don’t play it straight. And as for the villain – Sean Bean – he can sleepwalk through this role (done similar characters in GoldenEye, Ronin, Equilibrium, Don’t Say A Word), and yet, on many levels he’s a reasonable guy – he wants this treasure, and no law or common sense is going to stand in his way. If he can afford to track it down, why not do it, break whatever laws necessary, and ask questions later. It would be so easy to make him into a maniac, with crazy eyes and maddening speeches, but he’s just a determined pirate. Nicholas Cage does the same thing – prefers a straight face to a gimmick, and that’s really cool by me.

This movie ain’t no Oscar contender, and it won’t replace Indy in video stores. But it’s a pretty close alternative, and it’s a lot of fun to watch again and again – there’s plenty of characters to study, plenty of information to absorb, and of course the action scenes and chases are well-shot, so you can enjoy them many times over.

Go see it, and I can bet you’ll rent it a few times when it’s out on DVD. An action adventure that’s not over the top, and not a boring formulaic crap. And did I mention, no spiders, and no rats?

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