Cage's 'National Treasure' cashes in on wacky heist

Friday, November 19, 2004

If Dick Cheney had attempted to write "The Da Vinci Code," he might have envisioned something like "National Treasure."

The adventure/heist movie explores themes of patriotism, greed, clandestine organizations and hunting for things that may or may not exist.

Despite what one might logically predict, it's also a winner.

Nicolas Cage portrays Benjamin Franklin Gates, the youngest in a long line of scholar-adventurers. Gates, his father (Jon Voight) and grandfather (Christopher Plummer) have spent their lives searching for the Knights Templar Treasure, believed to be a bounty "too rich for a king." For generations the family has chased after clues the Founding Fathers left behind in places as conspicuous as the dollar bill.

A breakthrough leads him to believe there is a map on the back of the Declaration of Independence that will reveal the whereabouts of the fortune. Together with his techno-savvy pal Riley (Justin Bartha), the pair conspires to steal America's most hallowed document even as a ruthless former partner (Sean Bean) catches wind of the plan.


Buena Vista Pictures Image

Nicolas Cage, right, portrays a scholar-adventurer who believes a map exists on the back of the Declaration of Independence that will guide him to a vast fortune. Diane Kruger is his skeptical accomplice in "National Treasure."

The similarities between "National Treasure" and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" are hard to miss: the father/son dynamic between career fortune-seekers, the cryptic clues leading them from one location to the next, the blond German girlfriend.

The end result is a similar mix of mindless entertainment and historical name-dropping that requires an extra dose of what critics call "willing suspension of disbelief."

Directorial gun for hire Jon Turteltaub ("Phenomenon") crafts his most watchable movie yet. His best moments include a slick montage of how the Declaration of Independence is guarded, which is reminiscent of how Martin Scorsese detailed the security process in "Casino." Also cleverly assembled is the heist itself, which crosscuts Gates' intricate ruse with the rival group's espionage-heavy tactics.

Sure, the crime is as far-fetched as the one in "Ocean's Eleven," but that's part of the movie's goofy charm.


National Treasure ***


"The Da Vinci Code" meets the American Revolution in this lively action/heist movie. Nicolas Cage portrays the youngest in a long line of scholar-adventurers who discovers cryptic clues the Founding Fathers left that supposedly lead to a vast fortune. Historical name-dropping and mindless entertainment ensue.

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The lively plot -- courtesy of Jim Kouf ("Rush Hour") and Cormac and Marianne Wibberley ("Bad Boys II") -- is always just a step ahead of the audience. This is crucial, because the less one thinks about the mechanics of the story, the better. This is one of those screenplays that works in the moment, but won't hold up to even casual scrutiny.

In addition to such seasoned cast members as Plummer, Voight and Harvey Keitel as an FBI agent trying to foil the scheme, "National Treasure" capitalizes on a few fresh faces. Diane Kruger provides the love interest as a National Archives conservator who gets caught up in the fray. Despite rather bland performances in "Troy" and "Wicker Park," the former fashion model finally lets loose a tad with a performance that suggests she may have more to offer than a pretty profile.


Buena Vista Pictures Image

Nicolas Cage, left, and Diane Kruger team up in "National Treasure." Cage plays obsessed adventurer Benjamin Franklin Gates and Kruger is his archivist accomplice, Abigail Chase.

Astoundingly enough, sidekick Bartha displays a nice comedic touch that almost redeems him for playing the mentally challenged hostage in last year's infamous "Gigli." Almost ...

Cage brings his usual off-kilter approach to a role that could have easily gone to an action-hero type. (Thankfully, Ben Affleck was not available.) There's a glimmer of craziness in the Oscar winner's eye. And when his character suggests "borrowing" the Declaration of Independence before the bad guys can grab it, you believe that he believes in the rationality behind the plan.

He toasts, "Here's to the men who did what was considered wrong, in order to do what they knew was right."

Sounds like something Dick Cheney might say.