I’m at a crossroads. Is it possible to really like a movie but not have anything substantially positive to say about it? Some movies, it appears, are not wholly a sum of their parts. National Treasure (2004) has been released again to DVD, this time on a 2-Disc Collector’s Edition. I knew I had enjoyed the movie on its first DVD release in 2005 but couldn’t remember why as I sat down with this new release.
To start, this is a Jerry Bruckheimer production. His previous collaborations with Nicolas Cage (The Rock and Con Air) had both been entertaining but lackluster performances for an actor that once gave us Leaving Las Vegas. I like Bruckheimer’s television productions (CSI and The Amazing Race) and he hit the sweet spot with Pirates Of The Caribbean but his resume is filled with more style than substance.
The film starts with one of the plot devices that will instantly take all the momentum out of a movie. The movie starts in a flashback to 1977 and almost immediately flashes back within the flashback to 1832. If starting an action-adventure film is like starting a race, this is the equivalent of running five minutes in the wrong direction before turning around to start running in the correct direction. There’s quite a bit of history to be conveyed to solve the clues to this treasure hunt, but most of them are explained without flashback (like the prop of the $100 bill in Philadelphia). This device only accomplishes two minor points. First, we here the “Charlotte” clue that perplexes treasure hunters for 172 years. Well, it’s only a mystery for the viewer until the next scene after the credits when we discover that “Charlotte” is a ship. Secondly, the initial flashback to 1977 sets up Benjamin Gates’ (Nicolas Cage) passion for hunting this treasure based on a story from his grandfather. This scene would serve as a better marker when he arrives at his father’s (Jon Voight) house after stealing the Declaration. There’s already a characterization there of the doubting father vs. the faithful grandfather. And it would help explain Dr. Abigail’s (Diane Kruger) turn to see him as a romantic figure.
The first scene after the credits serves as real start of the action. Ben, his computer nerd sidekick Riley (Justin Bartha), and his money sponsor, Ian (Sean Bean), are in the Arctic about to find the long-lost Charlotte. Conveniently, the ship is located only inches below the snow. Looking for the treasure in the ship allows for lots of exposition, including Knights Templar history for those that haven’t read or seen The DaVinci Code. Ben and friends don’t find the treasure but another clue that tells of a map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. Like the opening scene of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, here we have Ben’s partner, Ian turning on him to steal the clue and leave Ben for dead in the Arctic. This is a classic way to set up a rivalry and yet I feel like we never had time to see them as friends/partners so there isn’t the same betrayal when Ian turns on him.
This introduction to the plot and characters leads nicely into Act 1: stealing the Declaration of Independence. Ben and Riley are backed into a corner where stealing it is their only choice. No one believes their story. The scene where Ben and Riley are at the National Archives telling Dr. Abigail Chase that the Declaration is going to be stolen is one of the best quiet moments of the film. The chemistry between the three shines through, Riley’s “voice of reason” is set up, and Dr. Chase’s initial reluctance to believe their story still shows a passion for history that will later allow her to change.
Act 1 comes to a close with the first tent pole of the film. The chase through the streets of Washington D.C. as Ian pursues Ben with Abigail caught in-between is wonderfully constructed but it’s heartless. It feels too much like a computer-generated, generic chase. Maybe we don’t care enough about Abigail yet or that the plot device of the second Declaration is way too obvious that we aren’t concerned about the outcome of the chase.
Act 2 starts with the possession of the Declaration. The fact that Special Agent Peter Sadusky (Harvey Keitel) has started his investigation gives the plot a bit of a boost. Now, we have a second group to keep track of and stay ahead of. The Declaration sends them to Philadelphia in search of more clues. I like the way the clues build upon themselves, forcing the group to take along the previous clues in order to use future tools. The clue on the back of the $100 bill gives them a time constraint, always a good thing in an action film. The last clue in Philadelphia sends the groups to New York City.
This Act ends with the second tent pole of the film. There’s a long chase through the streets of Philadelphia that feels strangely like an on-foot replication of the chase scene in D.C. Once again, the chase seems placed here just to mark the end of the Act, not as a necessary plot device. In fact, I’d argue that after finding the glasses that gave us the last clue to head to Wall Street, that the movie didn’t need a chase scene. Let each group figure out where to go and have the race be to the treasure.
The final Act takes place as everyone races to the treasure. The sets are beautifully constructed, if not too influenced by the Indiana Jones series. We’ve got all of the important characters back together as we approach the end. When it looks like the treasure isn’t there, we discover the “real treasure” – the father’s pride in his son. This is where I think the scene back at the father’s house is wasted. If we build up the son’s want of acceptance by his father, then this last scene is a much bigger payoff. Once they discover their family pride, then they are allowed to discover the real treasure of the Knights Templar.
The DVD includes the usual suspects of extras – deleted scenes, on location, on the set, featurettes and an alternate ending that is better than the actual ending in many ways. The actual ending has Ben and Dr. Abigail at their new home talking to Riley about the treasure. The alternate ending builds upon a “new” relationship between Ben and his father. Here they’re at the National Archives and hint at more treasure-hunting together. This familial message puts a nice bow on the plot. It was dropped because it felt too much like a set-up for a sequel. What? Since when has that been a problem for a movie? Whether you’re planning one or not, it’s always good if you can leave yourself that opening.
So, I’m not sold on the producer. I don’t think that the lead actor gave his best performance. I think that the main theme of father/son family pride was buried. The chase scenes felt dull and uninspired. And I often felt like it was borrowing liberally from the Indiana Jones series. Yet, I was with the story the whole time. The mystery saves the day. One clue leads logically to another and the clues build upon the knowledge of the previous ones. No blood, no sex, and no foul language allowed me to watch this with my younger children. You can’t always put your finger on what makes you like a movie. I find it hard to say anything other than fun.
Written by Musgo Del Jefe