National Treasure (2004)

Because The Da Vinci Code is a popular book, and because the Indiana Jones series still resonates with people (as it should), we get National Treasure, which attempts to merge both in as uneasy a method as possible, while also being fairly unbelievable and completely preposterous. It’s a silly movie, sure, but it’s a knock-off of two series, both of which have found an audience. I can at least see why it exists.

Here is a film that wants us to believe that the Declaration of Independence has a treasure map on its back, written in hidden ink, that leads to a series of clues that eventually result in a treasure worth an estimated $10 billion. Oh, and in order to find out that the Declaration has that map, you first need to discover a sunken ship that contains on it a pipe whose engravings contain a riddle which, upon solving, vaguely points in the direction of the Declaration.

You can understand how, at the point in which the main characters decide to steal the Declaration of Independence, I was laughing at the sheer audacity of such a plot. If you can get past just how silly everything is, you might just have a good time with National Treasure. After the theft occurred, after uneasy alliances were both formed and broken, I settled in and just had fun. Yeah, it was ridiculous, contrived — and these people must be the luckiest individuals on the face of the planet — but it was the enjoyable kind of ridiculous and contrived.

National Treasure stars Nicolas Cage as Benjamin Gates, a member of a family who was once given a clue regarding the whereabouts of a hidden treasure. He’s spent his entire life trying to find where the first clue leads, and has only managed to do so at the begging of our film. He is aided by an investor, Ian (Sean Bean), and his technologically sophisticated friend, Riley (Justin Bartha). Upon finding where the clue leads (the ship), Ian betrays the pair, leaves them for dead, and goes off to pursue the treasure by himself.

Unfortunately for him, Ben is a smart cookie, managing to escape the exploding ship and getting back to land. We know now that there is a map hidden on the back of the Declaration of Independence, and despite warning authorities that it’ll be stolen, nobody listens. Ben comes up with a plan to steal it before Ian can, as that’s the only way that he can secure its safety. He’s either brilliant or a madman. Probably both.

Eventually, they team up with Abigail (Diane Kruger), who works at the National Archives. The three of them end up racing against not only Ian, but the FBI (led by Harvey Keitel), who apparently isn’t too happy about the Declaration of Independence suddenly disappearing. It’s all leading up to something, and you can probably see what, but first we have to go through more and more clues of varying complexity.

For the most part, even through all of the unbelievability, National Treasure is fairly enjoyable. It’s not exactly deep material, but it’s paced so relentlessly (even for a film that plays for over two hours) that it’s hard to notice. There is always something exciting going on, and because of this, it’s difficult to care too much that the film isn’t interested in interesting or deep characters. In fact, there’s so little depth that you could replace any character with another, and it would be hard to tell the difference.

“But wait,” you’re saying, “doesn’t Nicolas Cage’s character have to be super smart in order to solve all of these puzzles?” Well, yes and no. There are a few times in which his knowledge of history and his general intellect aids him, but for the most part, he just gets lucky. Replace him with anyone of average intelligence and historical background, and there wouldn’t be any difference. He doesn’t always have a very direct impact on what’s happening on-screen, which allows him to be very replaceable.

“But wait,” you say again, signifying that you really need to learn a different way to object, “what about the love story between Cage’s character and Kruger’s?” That’s so pitifully underdeveloped that it shouldn’t even exist. I get that love stories are required by some unspoken Hollywood law, but it feels out of place in this film. It should really just be about solving the puzzles and raiding the tombs in search of new clues or the treasure, and trying to force a love story — which gets so little time that it’s hard to even call it that — just doesn’t work or add anything to the production.

Contrived and silly, National Treasure is still fun. Is it particularly good? Not really, but since it’s enjoyable for most of the time it runs, mostly because it doesn’t give you much time to reflect on how bad and ridiculous the whole thing is, it works. It’s not exactly must-see material, but then, it really can’t be. It’ll appeal to the type of people who want to see an Indiana Jones ripoff try to solve puzzles, but not to too many other people. Actually, since it’s rated PG and definitely doesn’t even want to tread into PG-13 territory, it’ll appeal to those kinds of people and to children. It just might have enough going on to entertain the turn-off-your-brain crowd as well.

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