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It glitters, but it's not gold

December 21, 2007|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

WHEN a formulaic movie rakes in almost $350 million worldwide, why mess with success, eh?

Executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Jon Turteltaub and screenwriters Cormac and Marianne Wibberley essentially clone the surprisingly lucrative 2004 action-adventure "National Treasure" to generate the sequel, "National Treasure: Book of Secrets." Star Nicolas Cage returns as the "treasure protecting" Benjamin Franklin Gates, positioned as a contemporary Indiana Jones tap-dancing his way through a cornucopia of U.S. history, myth and legend and a heavy dose of conspiracy theory. Also back are love interest Diane Kruger, comic foil Justin Bartha, disinterested-until-things-get-interesting FBI man Harvey Keitel and Jon Voight as Gates' long-suffering father, Patrick.

New to the cast are Ed Harris as the designated villain and Helen Mirren as Ben's mother, Emily -- a conveniently expert linguist long estranged from Patrick. Everything else pumping through the film's slick machinery is pretty much the same old, same old. We have a Gates family connection to a historic treasure trove, a slew of interconnected, esoteric clues to be too-quickly deciphered, prodigious product placement, chases, gee-whiz gadgetry and a Rube Goldberg-inspired set piece of collapsing scaffolding beneath a monument of some import.

"Book of Secrets" opens on the night of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination in 1865 with the story of how yet another Gates ancestor foiled a pro-Confederate group from acquiring a legendary fortune. No sooner does Ben conclude proclaiming Thomas Gates a hero to an audience at a conference than Mitch Wilkinson (Harris), the descendant of a Civil War general, produces a heretofore missing page from John Wilkes Booth's diary that implicates Thomas in the plotting of Lincoln's murder.

Since the last movie, which concluded with Ben finding love with historical archivist Abigail Chase (Kruger) and splitting a multimillion dollar finders' fee with his one-man IT department Riley Poole (Bartha), Ben and Abigail have gone bust with Ben moving into his father's house and Riley getting his Ferrari snatched by the government for not paying his taxes. Motivated to clear the Gates name, Ben embarks on another rapid-fire, map-jumping scavenger hunt through the dark corridors of American history, following a path so arcane it might have come from a Ouija board.

Even if you're fully prepared to accept the franchise's preposterous plot twists and connect-the-dots historiography (which can be admittedly clever at times), this edition wears out its welcome pretty quickly. Everything has been significantly amped up -- bigger, louder, further removed from reality -- but it also feels that much more forced. Cage and Kruger seem like they're not having much fun this time around, and Bartha still gets the best throwaway lines.

kevin.crust@latimes.com

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"National Treasure: Book of Secrets." PG for some violence and action. Running time: 2 hour, 11 minutes. In general release.

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