Nicolas Cage makes being a geek look cool. When he plays a brainiac, as he does in the retro, whistle-clean adventure National Treasure, he gets us caught up in the almost sensual pleasures of knowledge. Midway through the movie, Cage’s character, Benjamin Franklin Gates, stands holding the Declaration of Independence — the movie’s MacGuffin, which has an invisible map on its back — in Independence Hall; close to tears of awe, he says, “The last time this was here, it was being signed.” Moments like that, I think, are why Cage took the role; passion is his main currency, and Ben Gates is an impassioned, albeit discredited, student of history, as driven towards preservation as his other Ben (in Leaving Las Vegas) was bent on self-destruction.
Restlessly directed by Jon Turteltaub, who showed no particular flair for adventure filmmaking in his wet Phenomenon and Instinct, the movie goes like a rocket, from one ornate clue to the next; National Treasure is more a detective story than a two-fisted adventure like the Indiana Jones movies. The vast treasure promised by a family document has haunted Ben’s life, much to the dismay of his hard-headed dad (Jon Voight), who thinks the treasure’s a myth. Regardless, Ben has managed to convince some people, including his computer-nerd helper Riley (a scene-stealing Justin Bartha) and a shady character, Ian Howe, who funds Ben’s missions; Ian is played by Sean Bean, who specializes in duplicity, so we know he’s bad news the second we lay eyes on him. Ben isn’t so fortunate, not having seen GoldenEye or Ronin.
The movie becomes a merrily absurd hunt in which Ben tries to keep the Declaration of Independence safe from Ian’s band of thieves; to do this, Ben has to steal it himself. Before that, though, he slouches from office to office — FBI, Homeland Security — trying to tell everyone that the historical document is going to be stolen; no one believes him, not even Diane Kruger as a curator at the National Archives, who gets drawn into the adventure against her will during the Declaration’s theft-for-its-own-good. Those who hoot at the implausibilities in National Treasure are barking up the wrong tree, and may be forgetting how flatly unbelievable some of the situations in the Indy films were. Nobody wanted to spoil the fun then, so why should we now?
I called the movie “whistle-clean,” and it’s decidedly family-friendly; the backstory on National Treasure is that it was going to be distributed by Disney’s Touchstone wing, which handles PG-13 and R-rated films, until it was submitted to the ratings board and came back with a rare PG. That explains why the film is going out under the time-honored Walt Disney banner, and in truth, it’s about as wholesome as any of the studio’s live-action flicks decades ago; I’m pretty sure there isn’t even any swearing in the movie, except maybe in German. Nor is there much gunplay, at least none that pierces anything but walls, and there’s a refreshing lack of CGI gimmickry, too. I mention all this because I write about a lot of films that aren’t suitable for all ages, and when one comes along that’s not only safe for Junior and Grandma but also pretty entertaining, I like to point it out, if only to refute the complaint that they don’t make ’em like that anymore.
Of course, with such inoffensiveness comes a certain lack of edge. The plot of National Treasure could fit snugly inside a Hardy Boys book, and the scenes of clue-hunting (including a fairly nifty pair of specs that enable the wearer to have a Well of Souls-type revelation) should delight boys; I don’t know how well girls will take to the adventure, since Diane Kruger is mostly reduced to running around or dangling from things (Lara Croft she ain’t, nor even Marion Ravenwood). National Treasure, for me, is a fun and smooth throwback, but for boys of a certain age it may gather the nostalgic heft of the Indiana Jones films when those boys grow up. It might even inspire them to crack a book or two, and look up the Founding Fathers, and then the Freemasons, and from there, who knows.