I didn't think much of the first National Treasure when it hit the screens a few years back (my review called it "equal parts forced banter, moronic plot device, omnipresent exposition and oh-so-familiar chase"), but I'm man enough to admit that the flick has managed to grow on me a bit after subsequent viewings. I still wouldn't come close to calling National Treasure an overlooked gem or anything like that, but perhaps I was expecting a bit too much from the movie the first time around.
So I told you all that so I could tell you this: National Treasure 2 (oh, sorry, National Treasure: Book of Secrets) won't be getting the same reprieve, simply because I'll never watch it again. Some movies deserve a second look ... and some sequels are just unquestionably witless. But hey, if you're one of those movie-watchers who loves to get the same old schpiel, recycled repeatedly, simply because people prefer things that are familiar over things that are different, then I suppose you'll wring two diverting hours out of this cookie-cutter retread. But even if you like the flick more than I did, I guarantee you'll have forgotten all about the experience in less than 24 hours. Movies like this make you wonder if sequels are more punishment than reward. (Obviously they're neither: They're commerce.)
For those who missed the first flick, here's the general gist on both: Nicolas Cage is a nerdly-yet-slick treasure hunter / historian, and apparently his job is to discover maps and clues that have somehow remained hidden from hundreds of previous treasure hunter / historians. In both movies, Ben Gates (Cage) has a powerfully annoying sidekick (Justin Bartha) who serves two purposes: Grade school-level quips of alleged comic relief, and the ability to do literally ANYTHING with electronics. He also has a blonde love interest (Diane Kruger, and the duo exhibit about as much chemistry as gym class), a dad (Jon Voight) who repeats every single plot point (for the extra-stupid viewers), and a pair of screenplays that are just a bit more believable than, say, Independence Day.
First time around, Gates and Co. were searching the back of the Declaration of Independence in an effort to track down some "Templar Treasure," and for take two, they're looking for ... a city of gold. Tossed atop such a basic treasure-hunt concept is a whole bunch of wheel-spinning hooey about John Wilkes Booth, Gates' now-checkered lineage, and a whole bunch of painful material regarding Gates and his girlfriend's rocky relationship. And while the movie skips blithely from England to France to an underground temple (beneath Mt. Rushmore!) that's cribbed straight from Tomb Raider (right down to the elaborately stupid traps), I'd still offer the opinion that National Treasure: Book of Secrets is one of the most boring "adventure" movies I've seen in some time. Save for one sloppily-shot car chase and a bunch of dippy derring-do in Act III, the movie is almost entirely bereft of action, energy and color.
Aside from the groan-worthy Justin Bartha and the pretty-yet-wooden Diane Kruger, NT2 boasts a really excellent cast. Not including the bored-looking Nicolas Cage, the flick features work from Jon Voight, Ed Harris (as a villain who suffers from screenplay schizophrenia), Helen Mirren (who fits here like Judi Dench fit in The Chronicles of Riddick), Bruce Greenwood (as the least believable U.S. President since John Ritter in Americathon), and the usually great Harvey Keitel, who's given three or four pointless scenes just because he was in the first movie.
One might expect a movie with that ensemble to be entertaining by default, but the consistently obvious screenplay gives them little to do besides spout italicized plot points, offer some recaps on what just happened, and deliver some slight character moments that feel precisely like the afterthoughts they are. (The stuff between Voight and Mirren, who play estranged spouses, feels like sitcom schmaltz.) "We're gonna kidnap the president!" might sound good in a movie trailer, but it makes for one of the silliest scenes ever constructed for a non-comedy.
Some sequels take chances, try new things, manage to up the ante in some small way. (I'm thinking of Bourne mainly, but Pirates too, among others.) But National Treasure 2 is more than content to simply toss the same exact formula into the microwave and deliver its lukewarm cinematic leftovers to an always-hungry audience. The cast is (mostly) great and director Jon Turteltaub does a fine enough job of framing his global landmarks in attractive fashion, which means we should probably look towards the screenplay.
Now, I'm not exactly sure how Cormac and Marianne Wibberley managed to break into the biz, but if you look through their credited screenplays (The Sixth Day, I Spy, Charlie's Angels 2, Bad Boys 2 and (dear lord) The Shaggy Dog), you might start to wonder if a small and specific handful of screenwriters couldn't just stay on strike forever. (It's like Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz all over again!) Seriously, try drinking a beer every time a character A) recaps what just happened, B) narrates what is presently happening on-screen, or C) yells something like "We must activate the mechanism before the fulcrum re-calibrates the generator!" Plus they're credited as "The Wibberleys," and for some grouchy reason I find that really annoying.
Obviously I'm no snob. I love the "popcorn movies" as much as anyone, and probably moreso than most. But despite a strong cup of coffee, an amicable mood, and a serious craving for an energetic adventure movie ... I honestly couldn't wait for this flick to end already. Maybe because it's a Disney product or maybe it's because the script is awful, but there's no pulse, no real sense of danger or excitement, and very (very) little in the Logic & Sense Department. Like all the fancy relics littered about the Mt. Rushmore caverns (ha), the flick's few assets are all but buried beneath tons of generic tedium.