Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

National Treasure

Posted by CinemaPsycho on November 23, 2004

Directed by Jon Turtletaub/Screenplay by Jim Kouf, Cormac & Marianne Wibberly/starring Nicolas Cage, Sean Bean, Diane Kruger, Jon Voight, Harvey Keitel, Justin Bartha/Walt Disney – Jerry Bruckheimer Pictures

A historian tracks down a legendary treasure across various American historical landmarks.

I have to preface this review by making a confession. It’s not pretty, and may in fact get me blacklisted from any future professional jobs as a movie critic. But it has to be said.

I like Jerry Bruckheimer movies.

OK, not ALL of them. The Bad Boys movies I can take or leave. And I wanted to strangle the guy after sitting through his and Antoine “overrated” Fuqua’s crushingly boring King Arthur movie this past summer. Who the hell wanted to see a King Arthur movie without all the magical stuff that makes the story interesting and cool? It’s as if they purposely took all the fun out of it, just to prove that Jerry could make a “serious epic”. Well, you did it, buddy. And nobody cared. Get back to blowing shit up.

But when he’s on a roll – and that’s pretty much all the time, since his partner Don Simpson died in 1995 – Bruckheimer has established himself as the go-to guy for pure dumb fun. He’s a showman, a carnival barker, a mutant cross between the disaster blockbuster extravaganza instincts of Irwin Allen in the ‘70’s and the macho-fantasy bullets-and-bombs insanity of Joel Silver in the ‘80’s and early ‘90’s. Bigger isn’t just better in Jerry’s eyes. Bigger is merely a good place to start.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone parodied Bruckheimer’s bombastic tendencies in Team America, but what I don’t think they understood is that Jerry’s movies are pretty much comedies already. Some people just don’t get the joke. I think JB’s fully aware of how ridiculous, blustery and overblown his movies are – and he likes them that way. As soon as that lightning-bolt logo comes up, you’re entering Jerry Land, a place where the rules of logic and physics no longer apply. It’s a place where anything can happen, no matter how ludicrous and unlikely, as long as it looks cool.

And isn’t that really what these kinds of movies are all about? Seeing things that couldn’t possibly happen in real life? You don’t go to a blockbuster to see subtle, understated character work and daring, controversial subject matter. Blockbusters, particularly the action-oriented ones, are about painting in broad strokes. For all of their gargantuan budgets, Bruckheimer movies are essentially old-fashioned morality tales. The heroes are reluctant but rise to the occasion. They might as well be wearing white hats. Evil is always vanquished (even if it’s in the form of a great big space rock). Order is always restored. And a lot of stuff gets blown up, shot and otherwise creatively destroyed in the process. It’s a lot of fun.

Come on, there’s nothing more quintessentially American than that. But it’s important to remember that these movies are fantasies, and should not be followed as foreign policy.

National Treasure finds Jerry at an interesting, crucial time in his career. It seems like he’s been trying to leave behind the violent tendencies of his past work and embrace the “family audience” (in other words, don’t just see the movie, bring the whole family! Buy even more tickets!). At the same time, he doesn’t want to disappoint his loyal audience who come to see fast-paced action, hot girls and character actors who need to pay off their mortgage. So he lightened up on the body count and prodigious swearing of his previous hits, and the result was the supermegahumongous hit Pirates of the Caribbean, the biggest smash of his career. While containing no swashbuckling or potential Oscar-nominated performances, National Treasure pretty much follows that formula.

National Treasure is essentially an American history lesson without all those boring facts and information. Benjamin Franklin Gates (Cage) has been following this legendary treasure his whole life, preceded by his father and grandfather and several ancestors. He’s a great big history geek, and Cage plays this to the hilt and with obvious affection. When the movie starts, he’s on a roll with the clues, leading him to find a sunken ship in the Arctic (okay…), then steal the Declaration of Independence, with the aid of his stereotypical “tech geek” sidekick (Justin Bartha) and an impossibly beautiful National Archives official (Kruger) who looks like she just stepped off a runway in Europe. From here it gets even sillier than that, and is therefore a lot more fun than it deserves to be.

What results is basically a “race to find the clues to get to the next set piece” kind of movie, and as such works pretty well. Like most Bruckheimer productions, it’s smart enough to move fast enough that people don’t realize how dumb it is. Of course, there’s the prerequisite Eurotrash villain (Bean, who gets to snarl a lot) and an FBI guy (Keitel, not doing much here, but even a legend has to eat) on their trail. And don’t ask me to explain where the treasure came from – it’s something to do with the Freemasons and the Knights of the Templar and a bunch of nonsense like that. It’s all explained in the prologue, and it doesn’t really matter much anyway. Basically our Founding Fathers weren’t busy enough with establishing the country, they went to all this trouble to hide this big treasure, leaving clues on national landmarks so they wouldn’t get lost. Sounds plausible enough…I mean, no one’s going to erase the Declaration of Independence or tear down the Liberty Bell, right? Right?

This all apparently reminds people of a bestselling book called the DaVinci Code, but I’ve never read it and probably neither have you. So who cares?

What’s actually kinda cool about this movie is the way it takes American history and makes it seem like something other than a drag for bored junior-high students. It’s like our very own Raiders of the Lost Ark – why go to other countries to find lost treasure when you can stay right here? For once, our own homeland is actually portrayed as an exotic place, full of mystery and intrigue and goodies to dig up. (See, history majors, there’s a payoff for you after all!) Cage and Kruger’s characters are both huge American-history dorks (which, in a Bruckheimer movie, means of course they must fall in love, so they won’t bore anyone else to death) and their enthusiasm for material that even most Americans find arcane is really kinda infectious. Let’s face it, for many of us, this stuff is nothing but a bunch of vague, half-remembered “names and dates” we all had to memorize from countless history classes we suffered through. It’s about as relevant to our daily lives as trigonometry or the Canterbury Tales. So it’s kinda nice to see our history used in a way that reminds us of its importance.

Not to mention that the film’s heroes succeed by actually using their brains, figuring out clues and solving problems. That’s something you don’t see in your average blockbuster movie. And they succeed because they’re basically geeks (albeit Hollywood’s version of geeks), because they care about things that most average people really don’t care about. I don’t know about you, but I really dig that.

The cast is pretty good, for the kind of movie this is anyway. Cage could probably play this kind of role in his sleep, but to his credit he makes you really like this guy. People have accused him of “selling out” for doing these kinds of movies, but I think he actually really loves doing them. He certainly doesn’t have to make action movies to get by if he really doesn’t want to. I suspect he’s kind of a big geek himself. Kruger (Troy) is super-hot, but she actually seems intelligent enough to play this kind of character, so I guess she’s either really smart in real life, or she gives a really good performance. There are a lot of actresses you just couldn’t buy in a part like this, but she pulls it off. At first I was annoyed by Bartha’s “techie” character that we’ve seen in quite a few movies lately, but to my surprise he actually becomes likable and engaging as the movie goes on, and even gets the biggest laughs. I don’t think I’ve seen him before – I guess he played the retarded kid in Gigli, but I was wise enough to avoid that one, as were most people. Say what you will about Jerry, but he really knows how to cast his movies.

As for logic, well, forget about it. I’m sure there will be people who will sit there and pick apart the entire movie, as several critics have already done. But I actually feel sorry for those people, because they’re not capable of enjoying a movie like this. It’s not trying to be anything other than what it is, a fun piece of light, escapist entertainment, and on that level it works. But if you’re not willing or able to “suspend disbelief”, you should probably stay far away from this one. As well as pretty much anything with Bruckheimer’s name on it. On the other hand, I didn’t find it so insultingly stupid that I couldn’t have fun with it, and there are movies where I have that problem (believe it or not). I just don’t go to these movies expecting them to be something other than what they’re intended to be.

National Treasure may not be a great film. It probably won’t be remembered as a classic in years to come. But it is quite a lot of fun, and that’s what it’s supposed to be. If you’re looking for something else…you’re knocking on the wrong door. But if this is the kind of movie you enjoy seeing, then rest assured that Jerry has delivered once again. When he sticks to what he does best, he’s America’s volume dealer, and he brings the big, loud, goofy fun like nobody else out there.

*** 3 stars. 11/23/04

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