National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007)

national_treasure_book_of_secrets

National Treasure: Book of Secrets
Dir. Jon Turtletaub
Premiered December 13, 2007

First, an apology in order: I had to take a break from these. I got a job and a life, and also a roommate who just got out of a long period of unemployment involving lots of TV-hogging. But now I’m back.\

After Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl did unexpectedly well, The Walt Disney Company gave action maven Jerry Bruckheimer free rein to produce a long-gestating project by Disney vet Jon Turtletaub (3 Ninjas, Cool Runnings, etc.). Released in 2004, National Treasure is a family-friendly take on conspiracy thrillers and Indiana Jones knowledge quests with a patriotic twist, sending fringe historian Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) on a journey to steal the United States Declaration of Independence and use it to find buried Masonic treasure before the baddies can do the same for profit.

By the time of National Treasure’s release, America had gone wild for Dan Brown’s airport potboiler The Da Vinci Code, necessarily inviting comparisons. For my money, National Treasure did it better by not taking itself so seriously, much in the same way as Disney had done with The Three Musketeers eleven years earlier. But it’s still a wasted opportunity: the first act is terribly paced, Nicolas Cage is pointlessly restrained, and while his sidekick Riley seems to have been written in the mode of “sarcastic Ryan Gosling” (albeit long before such a thing existed), Justin Bartha underacts like a high schooler doing Hamlet. As a whole, it’s inoffensive but undercooked, and I found myself reacting much as I did to the Giro D’Italia starting in Jerusalem: with informed indifference.

Most critics felt the same, but National Treasure made a healthy enough profit to get the go-ahead for one sequel, which at the time was probably for the best and brings us back to 2007, and Cage’s third starring role of that year– yet another disappointment.

Despite improving on many of the first movie’s criticisms– Cage gets in plenty of trademark mugging, and the character of Riley is better calibrated to match Justin Bartha’s persona– National Treasure: Book of Secrets is so contrived and convoluted that it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on.

The story begins with Gates’ revelation to a historical society that his great-grandfather Thomas died protecting a hidden treasure from the slaver conspirators who assassinated President Lincoln at the end of the American Civil War. That is until shadowy Southern gentleman Wilkerson (Ed Harris) reveals a long-lost page from assassin John Wilkes Booth’s diary suggesting that Thomas was actually one of those collaborators.

Desperate to clear his ancestor’s name, Gates uncovers a cipher that leads him to yet another lost treasure: a buried city of indigenous gold sought after by the Confederates and now their descendant Wilkerson, who has brought a team of mercenaries to make sure that he alone will find the treasure and reclaim glory for his family.

While the groundwork for the plot is laid out, movie curses us with the same soft reset that everyone hated in Ghostbusters 2, in which our heroes have become either morons or unaccountable jerks offscreen so they can start over just as lonely and broke as they were at the beginning of the first movie. But why? The only people hoping to profit from the first movie’s treasure were the villains, and no one at all is trying to do that this time around. Likewise, Gates and Abigail’s (Diane Kruger) breakup– which, despite not being a divorce, results in Gates being kicked out of his own house– has no real impact on the characters’ relationship, only serving on occasion to flimsily overcome some minor plot obstacles.

And boy, does that plot pile up. The plot of National Treasure had just three locations and two artifacts which, once found, always stayed with the characters. Here, MacGuffins, characters, and entire schemes flit in and out directionlessly as the characters stumble through a rollercoaster of contingencies and detours, including a minor but trailer-friendly scheme to kidnap the US President (Bruce Greenwood). Between this and some tortured digressions into “cute” romantic squabbling by both Gates and his parents (Jon Voight and Helen Mirren), the baddies disappear for extended stretches, and virtually everyone’s motivations and goals get lost.

Likewise, the movie’s hyperactive tendency to bring in even more worldly locations opens some gaping plot holes, and happily calls attention to them: first our heroes get ticketed for using a drone in Paris, but then the baddies chase them through London, causing massive damage, with no consequences. Later, the team is pursued across Washington for kidnapping the President, but then find their way to South Dakota without incident.

While National Treasure augmented the American mythos with its own quirky fable, Book of Secrets actively misrepresents it in order to accommodate its ramble of a plot. This movie seems convinced that the Confederates not only could have won the war, but always could have won. Thomas Gates stopped Lincoln’s assassins in order to end the war, despite the South having already surrendered. Queen Victoria is discovered to have wanted to help the Confederacy in order to protect access to southern cotton (no) even after the South had been starved into submission. It also thinks the Lakota were hanging around Mount Rushmore in the 16th Century. Perhaps these are nitpicks on my part, but they speak to a disrespect for history that the first movie, mediocre as it was, fought tirelessly to avoid; and a desperately lazy approach to writing that should not have been surprising from the couple who penned Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle and G-Force.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Product placement for Borders, again. Everyone– everyone– has Moto Razr phones.

How Did It Do?
National Treasure: Book of Secrets grossed $457.4 million against a $130 million budget, far exceeding the original to become the 9th biggest movie of 2007. Despite this success, and a low-key sequel hook in the film’s epilogue, plans to continue the franchise have continued to stall long after interest in the series has declined. That may have to do with the poor critical reception, especially in the UK where it was assailed for implying British sympathies toward the slaveholders of the Confederacy. Ultimately, the picture earned a damp 35% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes and a couple of Razzie nominations.

Next Time: The Bucket List

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The Duellists (1977)

duellists

The Duellists
Dir. Ridley Scott
Premiered August 31, 1977

What makes a Ridley Scott film a Ridley Scott film? I asked this of a friend once before. It was a troubling question. Scott has made so many films that it’s easy to find commonalities: throwbacks to midcentury epics, strong woman protagonists, a penchant for respectful ambiguity that drives studios insane. But these are all cherry-picked.

Yet can’t be denied that there’s…something…in almost all of his films. A monumental visual element that is at home in most of his works, making even the smallest stories feel operatic. And that can be seen in his very first feature film, The Duellists.

The Duellists is based on a short story by Joseph Conrad, itself a thinly veiled retelling of actual events. The year is 1800. Napoleon Bonaparte has taken power in France, but has yet to crown himself Emperor. His country is almost constantly at war with its neighbors, and requires a massive army in which order is the only way to survive. It is here that we find the insatiable Lieutenant Feraud (Harvey Keitel) under arrest for nearly killing the son of the mayor of Strasbourg in a duel of honor. Critically upset over having been arrested in the home of a friend, Feraud demands satisfaction from the fellow officer who arrested him, Lieutenant D’Hubert (Keith Carradine).

The ensuing duel is inconclusive; when D’Hubert is prevented from killing Feraud, and much as he may not want to, D’Hubert is honor-bound to defend himself the next time they meet in peacetime. Occasionally, the Napoleonic Wars do take a break, and almost every time D’Hubert irritatingly finds himself in Feraud’s presence. Accusations of unpatriotism fly, wars come and go, regimes rise and fall, and both men get older. Yet they always continue.

The weakest link in the film is Carradine. Like many of the actors in the previously-covered Cross of Iron, Carradine’s California shag is a preposterous giveaway of the 1970s in what is otherwise a thoroughly realized and uncommonly grim portrait of the Napoleonic Era. And that more than makes up for it: The Duellists is one of the most visually sumptuous movies of the year, its cinematically atypical style evoking art from its period setting, such as the paintings of J.M.W. Turner. The production design is similarly deliberate, and the action scenes are as sharp as those of films like Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy. Altogether, the viewer is witness to the most visually unique period piece one might have made at the time (comparisons to Barry Lyndon by critics are myriad, and partly valid).

How Did It Do?
Box office receipts are undocumented for The Duellists, but at a deceptively low $900,000 budget, the likelihood of a profit is very high. It won Best Debut Film at the Cannes Film Festival (for which reason I should’ve reviewed it back around A Special Day) and deservedly so. Critics adored it, earning a 91% fresh rating on RT. Having long worked in British television and advertising, then-39-year-old Ridley Scott was a late bloomer. But The Duellists was just the beginning.

Next Time: Soldier of Orange