Racing Around the Globe, Solving a History Mystery
By MATT ZOLLER SEITZ
The hyperactive sequel “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” sends its archaeologist hero, Ben Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage, flexing his deadpan), on a globetrotting quest that might have been devised after a long night of Wikipedia surfing.
Returning characters include Ben’s archaeologist daddy, Patrick Gates (the improbably dignified Jon Voight); Ben’s techie sidekick, Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), who extricates Ben from impossible situations and serves up expository softballs; and Ben’s now-ex-girlfriend, Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), whose dalliance with the press secretary (Ty Burrell) of the president of the United States enables the gang to hunt for clues in the Oval Office.
New faces include Patrick’s ex-wife, Emily Appleton (Helen Mirren), a scholar of ancient languages, who is sly and sexy even while translating pre-Columbian glyphs; and a rival archaeologist and Confederate sympathizer named Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris), who brazenly accuses a Gates ancestor, Thomas Gates (Joel Gretsch), of collaborating with Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth.
Booth just happened to shoot Lincoln on the same night that he and a co-conspirator pressured Thomas Gates into translating a diary page that disclosed the location of Cibola, the fabled lost city of gold. To clear the Gates family name, the good guys must prove the existence of Cibola by finding the long-dispersed fragments of a map, one of which is hidden in a compendium of secrets handed down from president to president.
To acquire the cleverly named Book of Secrets, Ben plots to kidnap the current president (Bruce Greenwood) and blah, blah, blah purple monkey dishwasher.
Like its predecessor, “National Treasure,” this sequel amounts to a bunch of crossword puzzle answers stitched together with explosions, chases and displays of intuitive reasoning that the “Twin Peaks” F.B.I. agent Dale Cooper would reject as too right-brained.
Granted, coherence and plausibility matter as much here as they did in the Indiana Jones films and “North by Northwest” (a film whose Mount Rushmore set piece “Book of Secrets” unwisely invokes). But Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock’s escapist pictures were more than time wasters. They offered dreamily intense predicaments, lived-in relationships (like Indy’s with his estranged father in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”), for which the prickly banter of Ben and Patrick is a pale substitute, and action scenes built from dynamic shots that interlocked like stained-glass window panels.
As directed (covered, really) by Jon Turteltaub, the “National Treasure” films substitute trivia for poetry and busyness for thrills. The protracted climax of “Book of Secrets,” set in a dimly lighted, waterlogged Cibola (you thought they wouldn’t find it?), plays like a promotional reel for a forthcoming Disney World attraction. A London car chase that should be nerve-racking is merely noisy.
The best one can say for this franchise is that almost every character is educated and proud of it. Even the brusque Parisian cops who interrupt Ben and Riley’s inspection of the Statue of Liberty in Paris can’t resist joining Ben in a discussion of the Baron de Montesquieu’s role in creating constitutional democracy.
Such eccentricities are welcome, but they can’t approach memories of Indy outrunning a boulder and Eva Marie Saint dangling near George Washington’s face.
“National Treasure: Book of Secrets” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested) for bloodless violence and mild innuendo.
Book of Secrets
Opens on Friday nationwide.
Directed by Jon Turteltaub; written by Marianne and Cormac Wibberley, based on a story by the Wibberleys, Greg Poirier, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, based on characters created by Jim Kouf, Oren Aviv and Charles Segars; directors of photography, John Schwartzman and Amir Mokri; edited by William Goldenberg and David Rennie; music by Trevor Rabin; production designer, Dominic Watkins; produced by Mr. Turteltaub and Jerry Bruckheimer; released by Walt Disney Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer Films. Running time: 2 hours 4 minutes.
WITH: Nicolas Cage (Ben Franklin Gates), Jon Voight (Patrick Gates), Harvey Keitel (Agent Sadusky), Ed Harris (Mitch Wilkinson), Diane Kruger (Abigail Chase), Justin Bartha (Riley Poole), Helen Mirren (Emily Appleton) and Bruce Greenwood (the President).
Correction: January 10, 2008
A film review in Weekend on Dec. 21 about “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” referred imprecisely to a scene in the film “North by Northwest” that takes place at Mount Rushmore, as does a scene in “National Treasure: Book of Secrets.” While Eva Marie Saint dangles near George Washington’s face in “North by Northwest,” she is not shown dangling from his nose.