Never mess with a good thing — or, in the case of Jerry Bruckheimer’s “National Treasure” franchise, a mediocre yet extremely profitable thing.
That’s just a roundabout way of calling “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” a more-or-less exact copy of 2004’s “National Treasure.” Both are moderately diverting — if ultimately tedious – conspiracy thrillers in which adventurer Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) girdles the globe looking for buried riches, using a secretly encrypted historical document as his de facto map. In the original movie, it was the Declaration on Independence. This time, it’s the diary of John Wilkes Booth. One can only imagine what priceless American artifact will be pressed into service next. Richard Nixon’s Cialis prescription?
Several years after unearthing Ben Franklin’s buried booty in “National Treasure,” Gates is enjoying the fruits of his fame, lecturing Civil War historians on his great-great grandfather, Union patriot Thomas Gates (Joel Gretsch). Evidently, on the night of Lincoln’s assassination, Thomas Gates burned a sensitive, enciphered portion of Booth’s diary that would have led the assassin’s confederates to a secret cache of wealth, enough to finance another Southern uprising.
Imagine Ben’s surprise when security-firm tycoon Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) comes out of the woodwork with a long-lost page from Booth’s diary — one that implicates Thomas Gates not as a hero, but as the chief architect in the plot on Lincoln’s life. It’s a forgery, of course, but Ben’s elderly father (Jon Voight) is heartbroken.
With the family honor at stake, Ben assembles his old team — including tech-geek Riley (Justin Bartha) and estranged wife Abigail (Diane Kruger) — and gets down to the business of debunking Wilkinson’s claim, which he will do, of course, by deciphering Booth’s diary fragment and finding the treasure. For a little while, it will be a fun ride, full of swift pacing and juicy historical tidbits. Following a trail of passwords, shibboleths and assorted archaeological breadcrumbs, Ben will go to Paris to scope out the handiwork of Statue of Liberty champion Edouard Laboulaye, break into Buckingham Palace to paw the Queen’s antique desk and, preposterously, arrange the kidnapping of the U.S. President (Bruce Greenwood) via a secret labyrinth under Mt. Vernon. Naturally, there are other, villainous parties in the hunt: “That’s the axiom of hidden treasure,” Riley cracks.
Since this is a “National Treasure” movie, it’s also an axiom that Ben and Co. will find ultimately themselves in a sprawling underground cavern full of gold idols, rickety wood edifices and other engineering feats designed to turn interlopers into human pinballs. And this is where “Book of Secrets” takes a fatal dip, interest-wise. Like fatigued parents, director Jon Turteltaub and screenwriters Cormac Wibberley and Marianne Wibberley dump the characters in this elaborate subterranean playroom and go somewhere to take a nap. The motivations get sketchy, the pace slacks off, and the set designers and stunt-team take over. For the audience, it’s roughly as interesting as watching a bunch of grown adults mess around at Knott’s Berry Farm, even if one of them is Oscar-winner Helen Mirren, a new cast addition as Ben’s mother. You could have thrown Sir Laurence Olivier in there, too. It wouldn’t matter.
REVIEW | "National Treasure: Book of Secrets"
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Jon Voigt, Diane Kruger, Ed Harris, Helen Mirren
Behind the scenes: Directed by Jon Turtletaug, from a script by Cormac and Marianne Wibberley
Rated: PG (some violence and action), 120 minutes