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'Treasure' makes own history

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Washington Times

'Treasure' makes own history

By Scott Galupo


There's serious Nick Cage, and there's paycheck Nick Cage. Strictly speaking, the two are as different as Oscar and Jerry ? as in, the little gold trophy and the schlock merchant Bruckheimer.

Nicolas Cage and Mr. Bruckheimer, the producer whose name is synonymous with overkill, have turned up in the same credits before, in movies such as "Gone in 60 Seconds," "Con Air" and "The Rock" ? entertaining, sure, but distant relations of serious Cage movies "Leaving Las Vegas" (for which he won best actor) and "Adaptation" (for which he lost to an inferior Jack Nicholson in "About Schmidt").

So when something such as "National Treasure," a safe-for-kids Disney caper, comes along, you expect paycheck Cage, right? Right. He willingly and cheerfully embarrasses himself here in a B-grade role.

Mr. Cage is Benjamin Franklin Gates, a nerdy historian who quixotically chases after a family legend about a lost cache of priceless booty from ancient Egypt. The map to these riches is encrypted on the back of the Declaration of Independence.

The treasure fable has a "Da Vinci Code"-like sexiness, revolving as it does around some of the Founding Fathers' connections to the shadowy Freemason fraternity. The movie, directed by John Turteltaub (I'll nominate "While You Were Sleeping" as his best), has a cartoon villain in Ian Howe (Sean Bean of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy) and some woefully bad acting from Diane Kruger (Helen of "Troy").

That said, "Treasure" has some surprising charms. The screenplay, from the teamwork of Jim Kouf and Cormac and Marianne Wibberly, is a cleverly conceived cat-and-mouse game of clues and riddles wrapped in a web of historical minutiae, including letters to the editor written by Benjamin Franklin (no coincidence that his namesake is the movie's hero) under the pseudonym Silence Dogood; forgotten names such as John Snow and John Pass, who recast the Liberty Bell; and ciphering techniques used in Revolutionary War-era spy letters. That historical footnotes such as these figure decisively in a heist picture is a real feat of imagination.

If nothing else, "Treasure" will live on as a handy teacher's aid. It spends quality time in historically important American cities, including the District, Philadelphia and New York.

In terms of pure entertainment, though, the movie frustrates. At two-plus hours, it's too long, and key plot points are frequently silly. Gates and Howe, initially partners in treasure hunting, then rivals, both penetrate the National Archives, which houses the Declaration, with incredible ease. Though appealing to the eye, Miss Kruger, as an archives curator, fails to sell her character for a second.

The eternally busy Harvey Keitel plays an FBI agent in the command-and-control mold of his "Pulp Fiction" character, the Wolf. But here, as a good guy on the trail of thieves, the Wolf has no fangs.

The most likeable thing about "Treasure" is Gates' pious love of history. The treasure he seeks has dogged his family for generations. (Jon Voight plays his skeptical historian father.)

So, while he's attracted by the prospect of riches and restoring the family name in academia, Gates is motivated above all by a desire to protect the country's patrimony. You see, if Howe ? a Brit, naturally ? gets to the Declaration before he does, it's as good as trashed.

Call me a geek, but I can think of worse excuses for a heist adventure.

TITLE: "National Treasure"
RATING: PG (Action violence, disturbing images)
CREDITS: Directed by Jon Turteltaub. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Mr. Turteltaub. Written by Jim Kouf, Cormac Wibberly and Marianne Wibberly. Cinematography by Caleb Deschanel. Original music by Trevor Rabin.
RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes.

Further Reading:

In Focus (Bro. Tom Hanks, etc.)