National Treasure (2004) Movie Review

(Movie Review by Donnie Saxton) Promoting a blockbuster can be a double-edged sword, just ask the makers of “National Treasure”. Trailers and promos get people in the theater, but often reduce the quality of the overall experience. If you have watched even half an hour of television this month, chances are you’ve seen at least three trailers for Jerry Bruckheimer’s latest yarn, “National Treasure”, which was promoted so furiously by Walt Disney Pictures that there was little about the movie that I didn’t already know, or couldn’t easily predict, before I reached the theater.

Consequently, what might have been an average film experience was rendered flat and uninspiring; a poor exercise in storytelling that left me frustrated and wondering whether the makers of “The Da Vinci Code” (due out in 2005) are paying attention. If you’ve seen even one trailer you know that:

Nicholas Cage assumes the role of Benjamin Franklin Gates, the latest in a long line of treasure hunters obsessed with a fortune hidden by the founding fathers; a key to finding this fortune is invisibly embedded on the back of The Declaration of Independence; because of this, The Declaration becomes a target for theft; Gates tries to warn the authorities; the authorities assume he’s crazy; Gates attempts to preemptively steal it to keep it safe; various other national monuments and symbols, including Independence Hall and the 100 dollar bill, hold additional clues to finding the treasure; throughout the movie, Gates is relentlessly pursued by a wealthy antagonist (Sean Bean, “Bravo Two Zero”) who is also obsessed with the treasure; and finally, Cage’s hair looks great despite a 15-year battle with a receding hair line.

Perhaps, knowing all these things before I entered the theater, set the bar too high. Think about it: the founding fathers placed subtle clues throughout various national landmarks that lead to a multi billion-dollar treasure? This is a high-minded concept that prompts correspondingly high expectations. Unfortunately, “National Treasure” has no greater depth beyond its own clever idea. An even larger problem is that the movie never creates any real sense of suspense or exhilaration. Instead, it tells us what to feel or think and exactly when to do both. All that’s left are stale characters inhabiting an even staler screenplay telling a story that I already knew going in.

“Treasure” flops and flounders through Cracker Jack dialogue, forced anticipation, and a wholly uninspired performance from its lead star. Cage, one of the better actors of his generation, has the ability to carry lackluster material on his own, but here he sleepwalks through a screenplay nightmare. I was less interested in what would happen next onscreen then I was in the pained look on Cage’s face every time he uttered another
clich’ line.

Diane Kruger (last seen starting a 10-year war in “Troy”) plays the fetching bureaucrat Dr. Abigail Chase of the National Archives, and has even less to work with. Of course it’s no help that she’s been roped into the thankless role of a cardboard heroine sidekick. Not surprisingly, after some initial acrimony, Dr. Chase and Gates catch a whiff of each other’s pheromones, setting the stage for faux romance.

When Kruger’s character finally enlists to help Gates on his quest and says, “I’m so losing my job for this,” I couldn’t help but wonder if she was saying a line from the script or talking about her next movie. The real low point of “National Treasure” is the chemistry that never materializes between Cage and Kruger. Their first kiss is awkward beyond description, and watching it was like slowing down on the highway to get a glimpse of an accident. Although that might have been more entertaining than sitting through “National Treasure”.

As I said before, had I known less about the film prior to seeing it, I might have enjoyed it more. The stale execution wouldn’t have been quite so disappointing, for example, because I would have been submerged in an interesting, albeit poorly told, story. As it stands, I kept waiting for the material to grow legs and rise above its own mediocrity, but that turning point never came.

Ultimately, the previews were a far greater achievement than the actual movie. If you want the best of “National Treasure”, then just watch the 2-minute trailer on the Internet and keep the other 143 minutes for yourself. Sadly, mine are gone forever.

Jon Turteltaub (director) / Jim Kouf, Cormac Wibberley, Marianne Wibberley (screenplay)
CAST: Nicolas Cage …. Ben Gates
Diane Kruger …. Abigail Chase
Justin Bartha …. Riley Poole
Sean Bean …. Ian Howe
Jon Voight …. Patrick Gates

Buy National Treasure on DVD