National Treasure

Rating:

Blatant Indiana Jones Rip-Off

Main Cast: Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger, Jon Voigt, Sean Bean, Justin Bartha

Director: Jon Turteltaub

You know, I really don’t like to be the one to tell someone shocking news. If their world is going to be rocked, why should I be the messenger? Everyone knows what happens to the messenger anyway. That’s right, they get shot. But I’m willing to take the bullet this time, because someone needs to inform both Nicolas Cage and director Jon Turteltaub that Cage is not now, and will never be, Harrison Ford. I know, it’s shocking, but it’s the sad, sorry truth. If you don’t believe me, watch National Treasure, which proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that no matter how hard he tries, Cage can never be Indiana Jones.

Why the comparison between Indy and National Treasure? Well, because National Treasure may be the most blatant rip-off of the Indiana Jones franchise to date. And that’s saying a lot since about 90% of all action adventure movies since 1981 have swiped something or another from that intrepid archaeologist. But National Treasure takes the pilferage to another level, lifting its entire story, tone and set of characters wholesale from the pages of Spielberg and Lucas. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, these guys must feel flattered to the point of nausea.

National Treasure opens with a young Benjamin Franklin Gates searching his grandfather’s attic for the secret to the family obsession. When Gramps (Christopher Plummer) catches him, he spills it all to the young boy, much to the dismay of the boy’s father (a younged-up Jon Voigt). It turns out that the Gates family harbors perhaps the biggest secret in American history, or at least the one with the biggest payoff.

Centuries before, a fortune of unthinkable proportions was amassed and fell into the hands of some of the men who would become the Founding Fathers. They felt it their duty to hide the fortune, feeling it was simply too vast, that it would lead to nothing but corruption if allowed to be owned and used by any man. Only the Gates family, by an improbable twist of fate, believes that the treasure exists at all. Each generation has spent their lives searching for the loot.

Cut to the arctic. Ben, now an adult (Cage), is on the treasure trail with his partner Ian (Sean Bean). When the arctic search turns out to be both more and less than the men were hoping, Ian turns from friend to enemy, tries to do away with Ben and his doofus sidekick, Riley (Justin Bartha), and sets out to find the treasure for himself. The problem is that the next clue lies on one of the most beloved historical documents this country has ever produced. Now Ben, being of stern moral fiber when it comes to history, can’t let this document fall into such wicked hands – he must act to protect it. And find the treasure for himself, of course.

Whew! That seems like one heck of a story for a movie to tell. Too bad all that unfolds in the first two scenes of the film (and all of the trailers), leaving the bulk of the film to a tedious game of cat and mouse between Ian, Ben and various law enforcement, museum, history and family type people.

National Treasure wants so badly to be the next incarnation of Indiana Jones, you can almost taste the desperation as you watch the film. From that first scene that is so reminiscent of a young Indy getting his first taste of adventure only to have his father dismiss him in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to the more general fabric of the idealistic young scholar of history facing wicked foes bent on using that same history for their own selfish purposes and ending up in high flying adventure as a result, the whole venture reeks of pilferage. Even the “witty” sidekick, the treasure no one else believes really exists, the interplay of history and adventure, the attempts at dry humor from the protagonist, the reluctant but smitten girl – all have an instantly recognizable Jonesian tone. While imitation may be flattering for those being imitated, taken to this level it’s just boring and annoying for the viewer.

On top of the lack of true originality inherent in both the characters and the story, we have the sad fact that it is a poor imitation. Cage does not have the charisma of Ford, his deadpan serious delivery failing to lend his character any of the endearing interpersonal clumsiness that makes us laugh with Indy. The script (Jim Kouf and Oren Aviv) hampers him as well, with the dialogue lacking the sharpness and wit that marked every Indy installment. We’re also thrown into the main action much too quickly, leaving us no time to become attached to the characters before we’re supposed to be rooting for them. When Spielberg and Lucas used the childhood scene, Indy was already an established character that we cared about – the scene from his past simply set up the movie that included his father. Here, we don’t know the adult character, so the scene of him as a child fails to move us at all. It also gives, through dry and boring exposition, far too many details of the mystery we’re about to enter, when letting it unfold throughout the story would have been much more effective.

There are other missteps as well. Comedy is a big part of these action/adventure films, providing a lot of the fun and helping us bond with the characters. The comic relief in National Treasure comes mostly from Riley, the sidekick. Though Bartha gives Riley a kind of lovable dorkiness that could have been appealing, his lines just aren’t funny, the one liners failing far more often than they succeed.

Then there’s the villain problem. Ian just isn’t villainous enough. Sure, he’s greedy and mean, but he lacks enough development to make us really find him repugnant (unlike Indy’s established Nazi foes). Sean Bean just isn’t given enough nasty on which to work his meanie magic. We also have the conundrum of rooting for one treasure hunter over another just because the movie tells us we’re supposed to. Ian and Ben both want to find the treasure – Ian bankrolled the hunt for Ben in the first place. Now that he’s decided to take over and go it alone, the filmmakers throw in a little violence and dub him The Bad One. We’re just supposed to take their word that Ben is really a much better, nicer guy who should get to have the treasure instead. What we get is too much telling and very little showing – they need to give us something more to make this bad guy worth the investment of some good loathing.

We also get, ironically, a treasure that is simply too big. As described, it defies logic and the sheer enormity actually makes it lose significance. When Indy is looking for a cup or a chest we get invested in that object. When Ben is looking for the biggest treasure in history, there isn’t anything to grasp onto as a significant thing, something important to us, something we want Ben to have. The historical document is peripherally interesting, but it’s only a means to an end – the end itself fails to interest.

Some of the effects in National Treasure are cool – the document, some artifacts from hundreds of years ago, some historic places, even the arctic scenes. But the largest set pieces meant to bowl us over are badly lit and end up looking muddy and lacking impact.

The film isn’t really actively offensive. In fact, it’s sort of fun to pick at it and figure out why it isn’t as good as the Indiana Jones it clearly wants to be. What it is, though, is a pale imitator. Nicolas Cage is bland and unengaging, the script lacks both sharpness and wit, the villain is underdeveloped and the entire production is basically just rather dull – sort of the kiss of death for an action movie. National Treasure, unfortunately, set itself up. Instead of borrowing some of the elements that made Indiana Jones so well loved, it tried to be that franchise, investing far too much energy in replication and far too little in innovation. If you desperately need a fix of pseudo-Indy, go for it. Otherwise, give it a pass.  2 stars.

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