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Bankrupt 'National Treasure'

The Bruckheimer bombast knocks this hunt for loot off course.

November 19, 2004|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

Is it even possible anymore to make a Jerry Bruckheimer-style movie with a straight face? Can we absorb another army-of-one rogue hero, another blindingly beautiful blond love interest with a PhD, another pile-driving musical score accompanied by percussive choppers, more priceless artifacts blown to smithereens, more stolen kisses in the face of imminent (as if) death? Is it true that someone can write a scene in which Nicolas Cage uses the Declaration of Independence as a shield against bullets, and that, somewhere, it'll be considered a great idea?

Technically, yes, as Disney demonstrates with its new high-octane, eighth-grade field trip to the nation's capital and beyond, "National Treasure." Whether it's a good idea is another story. "National Treasure" may be an action-packed tear through the wildly unsubstantiated side of American history, but it has all the soul, wit and originality of a major co-branding campaign.

Admittedly, portraying a modern America without total brand saturation would be a little like portraying ancient Rome without sandals, but a movie has to come from the right place to feel if not completely authentic then at least more or less organic in its own fakey, man-made way. But its prodigious marketing effort overwhelms "National Treasure," and not just because of its impressive number of promotional tie-ins. (McDonald's, Verizon, Visa, Kodak, Dodge and NASCAR are part of the cross-promotion, as are the cities of Washington and Philadelphia.) The movie is just too willing to veer off into memorable merchandising moments, such as the scene in which Cage and Diane Kruger, who plays the beautiful Dr. Abigail Chase, a National Archives curator, take a trip to Urban Outfitters for a flirty, age-inappropriate costume change in adjoining dressing rooms, and the gift-shop scene starring Visa. Could an Oscar be far off for the beguiling plastic rectangle?

Cage laconically plays Benjamin Franklin Gates (let's unpack that name later), a fifth-generation treasure hunter (or, as he likes to say, "treasure protector") whose family has been on the Knights Templar booty trail for generations, about as long as they've been mocked by "the respected historical community" (historians are such snobs). Ben's dad (Jon Voight) is understandably bitter about it, but Ben is a firm believer. According to family legend, which Grandpa (Christopher Plummer) imparts during a lengthy debriefing in a memento-strewn attic, the marauders of antiquity's hot spots -- shown in flashbacks slaying Egyptians and Romans and looting what looks like Cecil B. DeMille's prop room -- over the centuries amassed an impressive war chest, which was hidden, forgotten and rediscovered by the crusading medieval knights who eventually spawned the Freemasons. Given that many of America's Founding Fathers were Freemasons, and that the dollar is stamped with, well -- you know, the family is convinced they must have known something about the location of the secret stash.

The start of the movie finds Ben and his trusty sidekick, techno-wizzy youth and constant commentator Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), on an Arctic expedition with his rogue millionaire benefactor, Ian Howe (Sean Bean), a sort of bad man's Richard Branson. Something tells me that if one were to find a mid-19th century British ship embedded in a polar ice cap, it might be under more than just three feet of snow. But then, I'm no expert, as Riley -- who is one -- likes to say before launching into a barrage of technical jargon without which treasure hunting might look disappointingly like a cakewalk. It's here that Ben figures out -- in two seconds flat -- that the map to the treasure is stamped in invisible ink on the back of the Declaration of Independence. A disagreement over what to do about that ensues -- Ian wants to "borrow" it, Ben's patriotism rears -- and following a series of explosions, Ian and Ben part company. The rest, as they say, is Bruckheimer.

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