Although an ending filmed for National Treasure went unused because it unintentionally hinted at a sequel, such a follow-up became inevitable from the very nature of the 2004 movie and its phenomenal $350 million worldwide reception. Three years after enjoying career high grosses on Treasure, director Jon Turteltaub and star Nicolas Cage reunited with Jerry Bruckheimer, the man who has earned an industry title of “mega-producer” for his uncommonly golden touch.
Also re-enlisted were most major supporting players, including Hollywood legends Jon Voight and Harvey Keitel, and the husband-wife screenwriting team of Cormac and Marianne Wibberley.
With public acclaim surpassing all expectations, the original film ranked as one of Disney’s all-time biggest live-action hits. Its success surely factored into the studio’s decisions to concentrate on more family entertainment through its namesake brand, Walt Disney Pictures, and to explore franchise possibilities at every opportunity.
Released just days before Christmas in nearly 4,000 North American theaters, National Treasure: Book of Sequels entered the crowded holiday marketplace practically guaranteed to draw crowds. Remaining more in question: would the crowds be pleased with the largely returning filmmakers’ efforts to both recreate the original’s appealing blend and offer something new?
When we last saw Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage), he had just beaten long odds and considerable opposition to find the tremendous treasure that for generations had intrigued the men of his family. Like any good adventurer, he did this with help from a comic sidekick and a pretty love interest. The sidekick, Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), and love interest, Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), are back, though life for them hasn’t been as dandy as they envisioned. Tech expert Riley’s book on the hunt for the Knights Templar gold (and assorted conspiracy theories) is a dud, costing him his flashy new sports car. And Abigail, your typically stunning National Archives administrator, is dating again after asking Ben to move out of their stately riches-funded residence.
Financial and romantic woes are minor compared to the news dropped on Ben and his father Patrick (Jon Voight) at a lecture. An apparently authentic page from John Wilkes Booth’s diary produced by Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) implicates direct ancestor Thomas Gates as the mastermind in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Compelled to clear his great-great-grandfather’s name, Ben hatches a plan that coincidentally sets him off on an international treasure hunt. Paris and London are the first stops, but the fabled city of gold Cíbola somehow emerges as the ultimate destination to solving the mystery, again shrouded by puzzling ciphers, enigmatic symbols, and obscure facts.
The original film’s dynamic of Benjamin, Riley, and Abigail resurfaces, as clues come into focus and obstacles are encountered. Serving as adversary is black market dealer Wilkinson, who operates with unscrupulous tactics, gun-toting henchmen, and an immense interest in the actions of Gates’ group. Also figuring into the twisty plot are Benjamin’s mother (Helen Mirren), linguistics expert and weary ex-wife of Patrick; old FBI agent Peter Sadusky (Harvey Keitel) whose part is considerably reduced in lack of real pursuit; and the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood), who is unbelievably accessible and adventurous at his birthday party.
Even more than its predecessor, Book of Secrets asks its audience to disconnect all their disbelief circuits from the start. In my review of the first film, I called it preposterous while singing its praises. “Preposterous” seems too gentle a charge for this sequel, and yet the movie rightfully assumes that with enough engulfing action and excitement, viewers will be able to overlook the extreme distance from reality.
For that matter, the Wibberleys’ script has us bouncing around in location and focus without adequate coherency. Right after wrapping up the film, I had trouble figuring out how the Lincoln assassination and a long-lost Native American golden city connect at all.
The link is practically irrelevant, for we never feel as directly involved or personally affected by the many turns as we were in the comparable instances of the original. In Treasure, we were along for the ride as participant. In Treasure 2, it’s nearly forgotten we’re tagging along, with showy plot specifics and imaginative historical fiction being of more concern.
In spite of the convoluted storyline and far-fetched scenarios, Book of Secrets does a fine job of keeping one entertained. That’s especially true in the first 90 minutes, which remind us what made the first film stand out: interesting concepts, likable characters, and sharp execution. It is a rarity among contemporary productions: fast-moving cinema which invites some thought (historical, no less) and neither excludes young viewers nor dumbs things down for them. For this kind of exhilaration, children may be able to forgive the faults, though whether they’re more or less likely to separate the fiction from fact seems up to debate, preferably not by Jeff Foxworthy and those showbiz kids.