National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007)

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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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Next (2007)

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Next
Dir. Lee Tamahori
Premiered April 25, 2007

When I first heard about Next, it was on a review show on PBS the weekend it premiered. Based on the premise, I was intrigued, but equally disappointed by the cold reception. I mean, it starred Nicolas Cage after all, and had the same director as Die Another Day, so it wasn’t a surprise. But when it came to doing this series, I wanted to check it out nonetheless.

Nicolas Cage plays Chris Johnson, a.k.a. Frank Cadillac, a Vegas magician who has the power to see his immediate future. Mainly, he uses this to cheat at casinos and evade the law. The FBI finally catches up to him, though, when agents led by Callie Ferris (Julianne Moore) try to recruit him to find a missing nuclear warhead.

Chris gets away, but not before meeting the literal woman of his dreams at a diner. She’s played by Jessica Biel and, as it turns out, isn’t completely turned off by the jowly, wild-haired stranger staring at her like she’s made out of chocolate cake and is also about to explode.

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Of all the films I’ve covered so far, this is the laziest (bar Uwe Boll). The script is full of awkward exposition and insistent terminology that makes me think the filmmakers didn’t know English. FBI head Jim Beaver refers to Russia as the “Russian Federation.” It’s not wrong, but it’s pretty obvious that this script was written a long time ago and they just did a find-and-replace of “Soviet Union.” Ferris claims that if Chris doesn’t help the feds, he’ll be sent to Folsom State Prison, emphasis on state, and a different state at that. The acting is less than phoned in; everyone rushes through their lines with little thought or emotion, as if they have only minutes to finish shooting (only Jessica Biel seems to give a shit, and comes off looking the best despite some unflattering choices by the film’s hairstylist). In one scene, Cadillac hides from a security guard by crouching; not under or behind anything, just crouching. And considering the relative groundedness of the premise, the movie is packed with unnecessary CGI that looks like it was rendered on a PS2.

At the same time, it’s not entertainingly bad. It’s kind of fun to point out everything that’s wrong in the first act, but after that it cools down considerably. The premise and plot aren’t bad at all; it is based on a Philip K. Dick story after all (very loosely, as always), and the ending reminded me a bit of Memento, but Next is a perfect storm of poor execution.

Sign This Was Made in 2007
The movie opens with a montage of the Vegas strip set to Junkie XL’s remix of Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation.” To be fair, it had only been six years since the remix first appeared in the Vegas strip montage in Ocean’s Eleven. On the other hand, it had only been six years since the remix first appeared in the Vegas strip montage in Ocean’s Eleven, and in the meantime had been done to death in the advertising campaign for the 2002 World Cup and as the opening theme for the NBC show Las Vegas. So using it here at this point is an achievement in hackery.

Additional Notes
At one point the FBI uses an “enhance” button to find Chris.

How Did It Do?
I didn’t expect Next to have had a big budget, especially after watching it, but since Lee Tamahori had previously directed the awful but profitable Bond movie Die Another Day, I guess Revolution Studios was willing to give him the benefit of doubt, because Mother of God, this had a $78.1 million budget. Even if critics hadn’t savaged it with a 28% RT rating, there’s no way it could’ve made that money back, let alone the unlisted marketing costs. Of course, it grossed $77.6 million, mostly from overseas, including yet another disproportionate contribution from the Kingdom of Spain.

Tamahori never directed a profitable picture after Die Another Day in 2002. Eventually he went back to his native New Zealand and actually made something that critics liked, but did nothing in terms of business.

Cage gonna Cage.

Next Time: Taxi to the Dark Side