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National Treasure (2004)

The greatest adventure history has ever revealed.

Rating: 6/10

Running Time: 100 minutes

US Certificate: PG UK Certificate: PG

Ever since Thomas Gates was told a story of lost bounty and handed a cryptic clue by the last surviving signatory of the Declaration of Independence, successive generations of the Gates family have been trying to uncover a vast horde of ancient riches said to have been hidden from the British by Freemasons during the Civil War. Cut to the present day, and maverick historian Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) makes a breakthrough: the Founding Fathers inscribed an invisible treasure map on the back of the original Declaration of Independence. With the help of his wise-cracking technical assistant Riley (Justin Bartha), the dedicated archivist Dr Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), and his own sceptical father (Jon Voight), Ben must steal the heavily guarded document himself to prevent it falling into the greedy hands of ruthless British fortuneseeker Ian Howe (Sean Bean) – and so begins a mad dash in, through and under many of America’s best-known monuments to reach the treasure first, with Ian’s murderous henchmen, and the FBI (led by Harvey Keitel), in hot pursuit.

While the Indiana Jones and Lara Croft franchises set their archæological antics in exotic locations and ancient cultures, ‘National Treasure’ brings the same plot-type right back home, transforming some of America’s most familiar landmarks into the unlikely setting for a treasure-hunting adventure. By constructing its wild conspiracy theory on solid American foundations, the film roots around in the Republic’s past to see what treasures can be found there – and what it unearths is not just the great wealth, but also the dreams and ideals, on which the United States were built. This is both the film’s greatest strength, and ultimately also a weakness. Treasure maps are normally of value only because of the value of the treasure to which they lead, but here, by an ingenious twist, the map is encrypted on the reverse of a document that enshrines America’s values as a nation, and so the map itself comes to symbolise (at least for Ben and Abigail) something far more precious than the material riches to which it is the key. Yet being a typical Hollywood blockbuster, ‘National Treasure’ requires a pay-off far more glittering and bankable than a bunch of high-minded words on a sheet of paper, and so despite its patriotic pretensions, in the end this film gets to have its cake and eat it too, with a whole bunch of gold as the icing on top – even though the film would have been truer to its convictions if the buried treasure had remained the pipe-dream that it was from the start.

While the idea behind ‘National Treasure’ is a good one, its dialogue (by Jim Kouf, Cormac and Marianne Wibberley) feels merely functional, with Ben and Abigail taking the viewers through American history 101, and nerdy Riley providing the obligatory (if not always strictly funny) comic relief. As a Jerry Bruckheimer production, ‘National Treasure’ moves along at a cracking pace, although its duration of 131 minutes makes it seem in the end more like a marathon than a chase. Its biggest problem, however, is its lead. Nicolas Cage is a man of many talents, equally at home in small independent productions and in big-budget extravaganzas, playing oddball misfits and action heroes alike – and he does one of the meanest Elvis impressions around. It might even be said that he is himself a national treasure. Yet he just cannot cut it playing an intellectual, and his Ben is convincing only in the scenes where he is evading bullets or hanging by one hand over an abyss. The real surprise, though, isDiane Kruger. Her debut turn as Helen in Troy may have suggested that she was little more than a pretty face (albeit pretty enough to launch a thousand ships) – but here she is just perfect as the academic Abigail.

It's Got: Tomb-raiding adventure in the heart of America.

It Needs: The courage of its convictions – and someone other than Nicolas Cage (much as I normally love his work) to play its intellectual hero. Someone like, for instance, Harrison Ford…


This amiable cake-eating adventure yarn tries to rediscover what has real value in America besides wealth, but cannot in the end resist showing us the money.