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Movie Review - Homeland insecurity

National Treasure desecrates American icons

Despite having the title National Treasure, Nicolas Cage's sluggish new adventure film constantly disrespects some of America's most beloved icons. Most egregiously, it turns the Declaration of Independence into a much-abused prop.

During the film, the 228-year-old historic document gets stolen, shot at, dabbed with lemon juice, buffeted with blow dryers, dropped in busy streets and dangled above bottomless pits. We should count ourselves lucky that Cage's character doesn't shove the declaration up his ass to smuggle it out of the National Archives: National Treasure wouldn't be above such a stunt.

The story begins with elderly Christopher Plummer telling his young grandson about the Gates family treasure. No, not Microsoft: this Gates family has long-standing links to a legendary fortune, amassed by the Knights Templar and the Freemasons, which was hidden by our founding fathers. Plummer's exposition features glimpses of warring Egyptians, Romans and British redcoats, as if rolling a reel of History Channel promos.

The grandson grows up to be Benjamin Franklin Gates (Cage), a discredited historian who's dedicated his life to finding the mythic riches. In his first appearance, he makes it to the Arctic Circle with his likable but shady benefactor, Ian Howe (Sean Bean). In a 200-year-old frozen ship, Gates discovers a fresh clue to the treasure's location and, in a bit of deduction worthy of a homeless street lunatic, concludes that there's an invisible map on the back of the Declaration of Independence.

Just as quickly, Howe and Gates turn against each other, leading to a cross-country race to see who can steal the declaration first.

In Washington, D.C., Gates tries to enlist the help of an improbably blond, nubile archivist with the only-in-the-movies moniker of Abigail Chase (Troy's Diane Kruger). She scoffs at his claim that the declaration is in jeopardy, and frankly, you can't blame her. Cage's performance drips with insincerity, from his hypnotically bleached teeth and his scuzzy open shirts to his habit of making sex sounds when he's excited.

With Justin Bartha as his wisecracking Gen X hacker (because, you know, nobody older than 40 can operate a laptop), Gates circumvents the National Archives' security and absconds with the declaration seconds ahead of Howe's trigger-happy goons. Chase becomes an unwilling accomplice in the ensuing scavenger hunt, which leads to no historic site that Gates won't vandalize. In Philadelphia's Independence Hall, he pries a brick from a wall, while in New York's Trinity Church, he raids a tomb.

With a sweeping manhunt linking bits of historical trivia, National Treasure tries to piggyback on the success of the conspiratorial best-seller The Da Vinci Code. But where Dan Brown's silly page-turner scrutinizes art masterpieces to pass along juicy gossip about Christian history, National Treasure provides the kind of factoids you'd find on a Shoney's placemat in Williamsburg. (Didja know that Ben Franklin suggested daylight saving-time?) But the movie has nothing intriguing to say about America's hidden history. Even a crackpot theory would be better than none at all.

When Gates uses a bottle of Aquafina as a magnifying glass to inspect a clue on the back of a $100 bill, it's obvious that National Treasure cares more about product placement than symbolic Americana. Doesn't the Declaration of Independence say that we all have the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of movies worth the price of a ticket?

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com