Published November 18, 2004
Movie Review | 'Da Vinci' rip-off gets history wrong, action right
History and explosions abound in the world of 'National Treasure'
By Sara Ludovise
Daily Editorial Board
Everybody knows the preamble ... no, not that preamble. Rather: "When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to track down a mind-blowing treasure of unbelievable wealth, make sure you do it with as many explosions and evil conspiracies as possible."
"National Treasure," which debuts in theaters tomorrow, makes no attempt to hide its traditional adventuring roots. Though its history can be traced back to the glory days of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), it is more obviously modeled on something that doesn't quite come from Hollywood.
When "The Da Vinci Code" was published in early 2003, Dan Brown made waves with a jarringly active writing style that played perfectly to the short attention span of the American public. His novel, unlike many other dragging tomes, is strikingly similar to action movies, with quick developments and tons of fast-paced events that kept his readers hooked.
"National Treasure," then, is an action movie trying to be a book that was trying to be an action movie. It borrows heavily from the fast-paced style of "The Da Vinci Code" and obviously attempts to capitalize on Dan Brown's conspiracy-laden approach to history.
The movie opens with a flashback reminiscent of "Indiana Jones." Sometime during the Crusades, a group of knights found an unbelievable treasure and came together as the Knights Templar (Conspiracy Group #1) in order to protect it.
The Templar later formed Freemasons (Conspiracy Group #2), who are never exactly explained in the context of the movie. Apparently, however, they had enough ties with the emerging colonial American government that they shipped the entire treasure off to the United States for no discernable reason other than the fact that running around the National Archives makes for some pretty cool action scenes.
The hero of the story, Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicholas Cage), comes from a family of treasure hunters. He and his team are working to track down the great treasure of the Knights Templar and their search takes them to a sunken ship in the middle of the Artic Circle (which, again, is there for no other reason than it makes for some neat explosions).
After solving a series of clues, Gates realizes that the map to the famous treasure is on the back of the Declaration of Independence and decides that he has to steal the Declaration in order to protect it from anyone else who might want it.
As an action movie fan, I've been disappointed plenty of times by the horrible endings that dominate the genre. "The Matrix" (1999), "The Bone Collector" (1999) and the entire "The Crow" franchise all come to mind as decent movies that just lose it in their last half hour.
"National Treasure" is the first movie in recent memory where the opposite is true: The opening minutes are just so bad that they can't be redeemed. Some of the action scenes - like when Gates tries to steal the Declaration of Independence or when he leads his enemies on a wild chase through the streets of Philadelphia - are absolutely superb, with nail-biting tension and edge-of-your-seat drama, but the only way you're going to see them is if you make it through the first painful twenty minutes. In other words, this is one movie where it's okay to arrive a half-hour late, just so you don't have to suffer through everyone acting surprised when the boat full of colonial-era gunpowder actually blows up.
The acting in "National Treasure" isn't superb, but no one in the cast is truly horrible. Following in a long tradition of long-legged librarians, Diane Kruger plays National Historian Abigail Chase, who is obviously present to redeem all the women with a German accent who have ever been maligned by "Indiana Jones."
Sean Bean, as the villainous Ian Howe, is a perfect Machiavelli and the rest of his supporting cast of henchmen are kind enough to speak in various foreign accents so everyone watching the movie can identify the bad guys instantly.
One of the reasons that Dan Brown's books ended up being so popular was because they were written as if the facts in them were be true. Nobody really thinks that the next Pope is going to be an agent of the Illuminati, but there are enough real pieces of history woven in with the obvious fabrications to make everyone feel that they are being let in on some great secret of the past.
Though "National Treasure" tries to mirror this nonchalant interweaving of conspiracy theories and actual history, the movie proves to be much less adept at the task. Facts aren't so much stitched together as dropped. For instance, Gates visits a recognizable and historical American monument, like Independence Hall or the Old North Church, and the audience suddenly learns that there was also a secret Freemason treasure cache that just happened to be hidden right beneath the building - it just hasn't been discovered in the past 200 years.
Most of the appeal of "The Da Vinci Code" is lost simply because the story reads more like your typical "Goonies" treasure hunt than a quest into the dark depths of American history. What's left is a fine action movie, but the Brown fans that go into the theater expecting the historically-justified conspiracy theories of the advertising campaign are bound to be disappointed.
That's not to say that "National Treasure" doesn't have its redeeming moments. The theft scene in particular is extremely well done, and once the movie gets going, it's a fun ride.
The biggest problem is that the movie simply doesn't live up to its billing. Go into the theater expecting a fun two-bit action flick and you won't be disappointed, but if you're looking for a big screen equivalent of "The Da Vinci Code," you might be better off waiting until the Hollywood version of Dan Brown's book comes out in 2005.