December 29, 2007

National Treasure: Book of Secrets

The National Treasure franchise can be boiled down to this: Likable characters spouting punch lines unravel ridiculous but spectacular pulp fiction mysteries. It's an exceptionally sturdy concept based on well-worn elements that should be able to continue on successfully indefinitely. Neither film thus far is what could be called high entertainment, but it's hard to deny that both are extraordinarily entertaining. Book of Secrets fell short of its predecessor only because I didn't go into the theater expecting trash.

Benjamin Franklin Gates and his crew should be living the good life after their enormous haul from the first film. But as the expression goes, "Mo' Money, Mo' Problems." Riley is peddling his spectacularly unsuccessful new book on the previous movie's caper when his car is seized by the IRS. Abigail has had enough of living under Ben's obnoxious brilliance, which has in turn left him sleeping on the sofa in his father's living room.

Fortunately, Ed Harris's ultimately sympathetic if thinly-drawn antagonist sweeps in to accuse the Gates' ancestor of collaboration in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He has a missing page of John Wilkes Booth's in his possession, it seems, with the name of Benjamin's great grandfather inscribed on it. The implications and authenticity of the written name are never adequately explained, but the plot point will take our protagonists to Paris so I'm not going to stress about it.

From here the film follows the usual pattern of snapshot history lessons, action set pieces and globetrotting hijinks. An intriguing piece of Olmec-carved driftwood hidden in the Queen's desk drags Ben's mother into the proceedings. Played by Helen Mirren, she's a delightful counter-point to Jon Voight's patriarch. An academic as respected in her field as he is ridiculed, she carries on with a biting, imperial manner that brooks no argument or contradiction. Naturally, she is dragged along with almost no influence on events, her dignity compromised at every turn. The relationship between Ben's parents ultimately resolves itself into an upper crust take on "The Honeymooners."

One of the joys of the first National Treasure was its abundant use of a cross-section of iconic historical imagery. Its follow-up preposterously and spectacularly continues the tradition. This time we get Ford's Theatre, a Statue of Liberty, Buckingham Palace, Mount Vernon plantation, the White House, the Library of Congress and Mount Rushmore. It was once again terrific fun seeing each landmark experienced from unconventional perspective for unbelievable reasons. I wasn't alive for the Saturday serials, but I imagine they must have provided an experience something like this.

Like its predecessor, Book of Secrets fills a void that Hollywood can't seem to understand exists. After the spectacular success of Indiana Jones, we should have been barraged by an onslaught of adventure films driven by ideas instead of depleted ammo. Instead we got endless variations on Lethal Weapon. It took the success of The DaVinci Code in print (which would also be adapted into an enormously successful idea-driven blockbuster) and "The Amazing Race" to green-light the first National Treasure. The fourth Indiana Jones film looks set for spectacular success next summer. Has the end come for blockbusters that celebrate violence for its own sake? Or are we merely enjoying a rare moment while studio executives' heads are out of the sand? Either way, I'm going to enjoy it while it lasts.(***)

On a side note, I have to ponder whether all future pictures released under the Walt Disney banner will run cartoons before the feature. The Goofy Home Theater short brought the house down and reminded me of when a Walt Disney picture really was something special.


John M said...

Good point about the Indiana Jones franchise. I enjoy your reviews.

Adam said...

Thanks John!