In Derp Blog Into Darkness, I take a plunge into the deep with movies I’ve never seen or (in some cases) even heard of, with the only common thread throughout being that they were purchased by my partner in the years after the break with her religious upbringing. This gives me a range from mainstream comfort food to more daring, “rebellious” stuff.
Here’s a bit of cheating: Ella actually only owns NATIONAL TREASURE: BOOK OF SECRETS, the second one in the series. I had seen neither entry in the series, so my initial thought was to just write up 2 free of context and consider any confusion or incomprehensible callbacks to the first instances of delightful absurdity. BUT! Ella felt like watching the first one again, so, ever mindful to the pleasure of my dear readers, I decided to just do a DUOLOGY write-up. Lucky all of you!
In 2004’s NATIONAL TREASURE, Nic Cage plays Benjamin Franklin… Gates. Haha, got you excited for a second, huh? Ever since childhood,* BFG has been fascinated with the Treasure of the Templars, the quest for which has shamed the Gates family in the academic community. Grampa Christopher Plummer enjoys telling tales of this mythical bootie, a hint of whose whereabouts was entrusted to Carriage Boy Gates by the last surviving co-signer of the Declaration of Independence way back in America’s prehistory**. Poppa Jon Voight doesn’t want lil’ Cage’s head filled with such nonsense, though! He’s aginn’ it!
The story Christopher Plummer tells baby Ben is accompanied by short flashbacks to Egyptian, crusader and revolutionary times. They don’t look bad or anything, but they have this weird stagey feel to them, like you’re at the Hall of Presidents in Disneyland, only these auto-erotica are super realistic. The treasure of Egypt and King Solomon was found by crusading knights who called themselves… the Templars!
[shot of knights crossing their swords in the air]
I mean yes the Templars were technically knights who went to Jerusalem and came back with riches, but… aw heck, it’s a kid’s movie and it’s not really ABOUT the Templars, so let’s let it slide.
Years later, BIG CAGE is trekking all over the world in search of more clues for the Templar Treasure, financed in his activities by rich UK fat cat Sean Bean. When they find out that the next clue is printed on the back of OMG the Declaration of Independence, Bean suggests they steal it. By the time I had collected my jaw up off the floor following a Sean Bean character’s declaration of villainous intent, Bean and his cronies had left Cage and comic relief computer guy Riley for dead on the ice fields of (let’s say) Canada. Cage wanted to go through proper channels, dammit! But when PROPER CHANNELS rebuff and ridicule Ben and Riley at every turn, he decides to steal it before Bean has a chance to!
The thin motivations each party has make for an extremely low-stakes movie. Sure, Ben wants to clear the Gates family name from being crackpots, but him and his dad aren’t exactly shown to be in dire financial straits or anything. Bean wants the treasure because… actually, I’m not sure. It’s a lot of gold, I guess? It’s certainly no ark of the covenant that he can sell to a foreign power as a superweapon or something. He’s probably just gonna buy caviar and smoke stogies. So at this point we’re just rooting for Cage cuz Bean was quicker to resort to illegality than him.
During the mini-heist to get the Declaration, they hook up with National Archives Director Abigail Chase*** (Diane Kruger) because this movie needs a woman, dammit. We’ll add another one in the sequel! The intrepid threesome soon chases clue after clue that takes them to notable American landmarks like Independence Hall, the USS Intrepid, the National Archives, Trinity Church, etc. where they solve riddles easy enough for a kid audience to participate/not get confused by.
The low stakes and earnest, wide-eyed nature of NATIONAL TREASURE make it a fun time. I mean it’s probably best not viewed with any actual knowledge of history, since you can pretty much poke holes in ANY of the secret history the movie portrays, but I think it has a positive “History is important! Learn stuff!” message coupled with a pleasant 1950s Disney adventure movie atmosphere going for it. When late in the movie a guy falls to his death (the only death in the movie), I was genuinely pretty shocked – just to give you an indication of how pleasant the atmosphere is.
To my surprise, 2007’s NATIONAL TREASURE: BOOK OF SECRETS actually would have played differently if I had not seen the first one beforehand. Comic relief Riley bought a Ferrari with his share of the treasure at the end of that one, and it gets towed at the start of this one. If I didn’t know it to be his only piece of wealth, I would find myself very aghast at this movie trying to get me to sympathize with a Ferrari owner’s lost Ferrari! Also, he wrote a book about his adventures in the first movie that is clearly marked RILEY POOLE but all the hot girls who come and ask him about it ask him if he is BENJAMIN GATES. No Madam, I am Riley Poole it says so on this book that I am signing and has my picture on it.
I get that the screenwriters (douchily credited as THE WIBBERLEYS) want to make it clear Riley is underappreciated for his contributions to finding the treasure while making some jokes about how this hurts his ego BUT IT DOES NOT WORK because it just seems like Riley is trying to hock his non-fiction at a book store for the differently abled.
In the first movie, Daddy Voight mentions “what little time I had with your mother” mournfully, implying he’s a widower. But it turns out Momma Gates (Helen Mirren) is alive and well, and teaches pre-columbian history at UM – and they fight all sassy-like! Ehhh… okay I guess they went with another interpretation of that line. But then she says she had to raise Ben all by herself while he went off treasure-huntin’! Then don’t complain about “what little time I had with your mother” if you’re off treasure/anaconda-huntin’, Voight!
Anyway THE PLOT – John Wilkes Boothe was part of a Secret Society that was looking for a treasure so they could fund further secession after the war had officially ended. Boothe goes off to the theater to do stuff, I dunno what, while his buddy puts a gun against Thomas Gates’ (yes, THAT Gates!) head in a tavern and tells him to GET TO CRACKIN this code that they found. Rather than prolong this damned war, Gates manages to throw the code into the fire of the tavern’s hearth as the baddie shoots him. When his lil’ babbly Gates that was with him for REASONS cradles his dying poppa in his arms, the baddie cannot find it in his heart to finish the guy off. Even though Thomas dies of his wounds shortly afterwards, I found it charming that the presence of a child deterred a bad guy from shooting a second time. That’s that gentle NATIONAL TREASURE spirit!
Fast forward a few centuries, and confeddit descendant Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) shames the Gates family name by producing the Boothe booklet implicating Thomas Gates in the conspiracy to kill Lincoln. This outrages Cage and Voight, so the race is on to clear the family name. Again! Sorta! Oh, and they’re gonna need to sneak into Abigail’s house since Ben and her broke up since the first movie for reasons. Well yeah okay the reasons are that we need extra conflict in this movie and the Wibberleys aren’t very good at the writing for the screen, but the in-movie reason seems to be because of Abigail’s unfortunate use of conjunctions.
Clue-huntin’ happens again, this time even internationally (with such flash cards as PARIS, FRANCE and LONDON, ENGLAND). Some of the shit they have to get up to is so outlandish, it’s almost a Simpsons joke movie premise. Even if BOOK OF SECRETS is a step down from the first, it’s still hard to actually dislike. Both NATIONAL TREASURE movies use either real locations or impressive sets, so they’re constantly pleasant to watch even if the content isn’t always up to snuff. One thing I did enjoy in the second one over the first were a couple of NIC CAGE freakouts that seem almost transgressive for a kids’ movie, since you’re expecting BAD LIEUTENANT to happen when he makes those eyes.
I found the first one overall quite pleasant and would recommend it for family viewing because of its gentle tone, inquisitive nature and rapid pacing. While the second one retains those things, I just had too many sequel screenplay hackjob niggles to do the same for it. Although director Jon Turteltaub (3 NINJAS) does an adequate job on both movies (the balancing platform set piece at the end of 2 is quite thrilling), the best parts of either of them – basically anything that gets all wide-eyed about history – made me think what a kids’ adventure movie about American history by Spielberg, or even Joe Johnston would have been like. Just like with real American history, the NATIONAL TREASURE franchise is pretty good if you pretend half of it didn’t happen!
*Lil’ Cage is played by the awkwardly androgynous boy from LAST OUNCE OF COURAGE, which I found weird cuz I thought fundies had their own pool of actors and filmmakers.
**Also known as Europe’s last Tuesday.
***What a cool name.