Benjamin Gates (Cage) has devoted his life to finding the untold historical riches hidden by the Knights Templar. Learning that vital clues to the loot's whereabouts are encrypted on the back of the Declaration Of Independence, Gates nicks the artefact
Being the first flick to draw on the fervour for Da Vinci Code-style ancient-history detective stories and the second Bruckheimer production (after Pirates Of The Caribbean) to deliver a PG booty trawl, National Treasure feels like a compromise. Caught uncomfortably between a kiddie adventure and a grown-up conspiracy thriller, it lacks the thrills for the latter and the smarts for the former, delivering a hokey, only vaguely fun romp.
Surprisingly for a Bruckheimer biggie, the action, ranging from a by-numbers van chase to a desultory climax involving a collapsing staircase in a New York catacomb, defines run of the mill. Even worse, while National Treasure shows little flair for spectacle, it shows less for yarnspinning. The whole plot - and this is nothing but plot - is packed with unfocused motivations and sluggish, hamfisted exposition, while the absurd clues that propel the story are so impenetrable that you expect Nic Cage to encounter Ted Rodgers and Dusty Bin at any moment.
The whole tale is populated by colourless characters, be it Sean Bean's one-note Brit villian, Jon Voight as Gates' estranged father (all very Last Crusade) and Harvey Keitel who pulls his detective from the draw marked 'GRIMLY DOGGED COP'. As for Cage, the role of an obsessive treasure hunter would seem perfect for his brand of manic energy and eccentricity, but instead he proffers sub-Harrison Fordian determination, clearly caring little for a very undercooked character.
It isn't all bad, though. Desite respectively playing sidekicks named Abigail Eye Candy and Rollie Thick Person Who Acts As A Surrogate For A Confused Audience (they might as well be), Diane Kruger shows more spark than she did in the 162 minutes of Troy and Justin Bartha is an affable presence, his character the obvious recipient of a probable dialogue polish that punched up the humour quotient.
Plus, however absurd it gets, the treasure hunt mechanic tugs on your curiosity, the set-piece to steal the Declaration Of Independence is engaging and it's tough not to root for a gang of heroes who survive on their ingenuity and passion for history rather than the internet and brute force. There's something likeable about National Treasure's loopy inanity but, given The Da Vinci Code's gearing up with Ron Howard and Tom Hanks, this might soon look like the rushed-out knock-off it patently is.
Pulling off the neat trick of being simultaneously moronic and mildly educational, National Treasure is The Da Vinci Code lite - rubbish certainly, but not without a certain charming stupidity.