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(2004) (Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger) (PG)

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Action/Adventure: A modern day treasure hunter teams up with a government worker to figure out historical clues left by America's founding fathers and track down an immense and ancient treasure before his adversary does the same.
For six generations, members of the Gates family have been pursuing clues -- believed to have been left by America's founding fathers -- that might lead them to the legendary Knights of Templar treasure that's rumored to be hidden somewhere in the U.S. After discovering a centuries old oceangoing vessel buried in the Arctic Circle, Benjamin Franklin Gates (NICOLAS CAGE), his assistant Riley Poole (JUSTIN BARTHA) and their financier Ian Howe (SEAN BEAN) have found another cryptic clue.

This one is the most telling, however, leading Ben to believe that the location of another clue or perhaps a map to the treasure is located on the back of the Declaration of Independence. When Ben won't go along with Ian's decision to steal that famous document, the two violently part ways, with Ian believing the other two to be dead.

Realizing they have little time and finding themselves unable to convince National Archives conservator Abigail Chase (DIANE KRUGER) of the legitimacy of their claims, Ben decides that the only way to protect the Declaration is to steal it and keep it out of Ian's hands. Utilizing an elaborate plan, they manage to do just that, but end up having to save Abigail from Ian and his goons who arrived on the same night with the same quest.

After getting some help from Ben's estranged father, Patrick Gates (JON VOIGHT), who states he wasted decades of his life hunting for what he now believes to be just a myth, Ben shows Abigail that he wasn't crazy as they find more clues hidden on the back of the fragile document. Trying to stay one step ahead of Ian and his goons as well as federal agent Peter Sadusky (HARVEY KEITEL) and his men who are hot on their trail, Ben, Abigail and Riley race from one historical location to the next, collecting clues that they hope will lead them to the treasure.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
I thought I knew a lot about our country's founding fathers -- they being the likes of Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and George Mason for those who didn't pay attention in history class -- but how could I have guessed that they were members of a secret society that would make James Bond wish he were a member?

You see, while they don't appear in "National Treasure," their handiwork does and it's all of their cryptic clues that fuel the plot in this action adventure flick from producer Jerry Bruckheimer. If the idea sounds vaguely familiar, that's because it contains more than passing similarities to Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code."

While the characters and details are obviously different, the premise is rather similar. Instead of clues left by the likes of the title character and Sir Isaac Newton that lead to a great religious find, screenwriters Jim Kouf ("Taxi," "Snow Dogs") and Cormac Wibberley & Marianne Wibberley ("Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle," "I Spy") have the character played by Nicolas Cage following clues left by those founding fathers to find a treasure of historic significance.

Not surprisingly, this is one of those big-budget releases that requires a huge dose of suspension of disbelief not only for the basic premise, but also for a great deal of what occurs within the film. As a disclaimer, I have no problem accepting the basic, far-fetched story regarding a map on the back of the Declaration of Independence.

What doesn't work for me is the sloppy and careless way in which the writers and director Jon Turteltaub ("Instinct," "While You Were Sleeping") have the characters act and react while getting caught up in the conspiracy and then dealing with deciphering the clues that lead to more clues and so on, all while avoiding the bad guys and the feds who are after them.

All of which is too bad since the film starts out decently enough. After a brief prologue where the grandfatherly Christopher Plummer ("Nicolas Nickleby," "The Sound of Music") introduces the basic plot, we're transported to the Arctic. There, Cage ("Matchstick Men," "Adaptation"), his faithful assistant played by Justin Bartha ("Gigli") and the soon-to-be obligatory villain embodied by Sean Bean ("Troy," the "Lord of the Rings" films) discover a centuries-old ship buried beneath the snow.

Their newest clue leads to a disagreement, a big explosion and then a race to the National Archives to steal the historic document for its vital clue that -- natch -- is written in invisible ink since the founding fathers were fond of doing just that. The film's problems first arrive in turning Cage's character into a James Bond/Mission: Impossible type creation.

Not only do he and his partner get unbelievable access to the National Archives' blueprints and more, but they also deploy Jimmy Bond/Phelps-esque technology and gadgetry to do so. It's at that point that you must turn off your brain as the believability factor -- even for a film as absurd as this -- quickly goes downhill from there.

With every coincidence, convenient plot development and illogical behavior, the film's I.Q. progressively drops until the sheer stupidity of it all completely overrides what moderate escapist entertainment value that's left.

If there's one slightly positive thing that can be said about the film, it's that it's certainly never boring. From those high tech moments to the various car and foot chases and more, Turteltaub constantly has the story moving forward, albeit oftentimes recklessly. In the end, however, it doesn't amount to anything more than a poor man's version of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Even for a rip-off of that classic such as "Romancing the Stone," the way that story was told and its characters were fleshed out and interacted with each other led to an entertaining experience.

While Bartha is present for some comic relief, the rest of the characters are flat as is their chemistry together. That last part obviously applies to Cage and Diane Kruger ("Troy," "Wicker Park") who appears as his initially reluctant accomplice. Yet, it also holds true for the antagonistic one between Cage and Bean. Neither coupling provides any sort of smart, fun or entertaining sparks, resulting in a less than engaging experience for the viewer.

The likes of Jon Voight ("The Manchurian Candidate," "Holes") and Harvey Keitel ("Red Dragon," "U-571") appear in smaller roles, but they can't do much with them, particularly in regards to the many "But what if..?" questions and moments that permeate the film and will fill viewers' minds.

If you can keep them and any sort of other cognitive activity at bay, you may just enjoy this offering. On the other hand, if any doubts or moments of common sense arise, the film ends up fluttering away like ashes from a burning treasure map. This "National Treasure" goes up in smoke and thus isn't really worth finding. The film rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed November 10, 2004 / Posted November 19, 2004

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