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National Treasure – A Duology Retrospective

In recognition of the annual holiday that is the Fourth of July weekend, I figured that now would be the perfect time to tackle a franchise that I’ve always wanted to cover in retrospective form. And the thing is… the idea of doing this post and having it come out around this time is something that I’ve wanted to do for a few years now, and yet, I never got around to doing it. In fact, it could’ve been a perfect time to do it last year seeing how 2019 was the 15th anniversary of the first film’s release. But even though I do own both these films on Blu-Ray, this has been the one post that has always eluded me… until now. Yes, fueled in large part by my most recent viewings of these films on Disney+ and the fact that it feels appropriate to do this little retrospective on two American-themed adventure films for this weekend, the time has finally come for me to tackle a pair of films that were some of my absolute favorites growing up. These two films in question came courtesy of Hollywood mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer (just one year after he had helped launch the massive franchise that is Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean) and veteran director Jon Turteltaub, who was very much a studio regular at that point having directed films such as 1993’s Cool Runnings and 1996’s Phenomenon. Both films proved to be big hits at the box-office even if they weren’t exactly as successful with critics for reasons that, yes, we will get into. Nevertheless, they’ve continued to be some of the most notable films that came from Disney’s live-action filmography in the early 2000s, and after many years of speculation, it seems like this franchise will finally be getting a third installment sometime soon. Until then, its time to celebrate a highly entertaining pair of films that, let’s face it, is mainly known nowadays as that series where, in one film, Nicolas Cage boldly proclaims that he’s “gonna steal the Declaration of Independence” and, in another film, “kidnap the President of the United States”. That’s right, folks, today we’ll be looking back at the National Treasure films.

Now before we begin, I should point out that this will be a far different kind of retrospective compared to all the other ones that I’ve done over the years. When it comes to retrospectives, I usually just go through all the films that are a part of whatever franchise I’m looking at in the chronological order of their release. But when it comes to National Treasure, I realized that I had to switch things up a bit for this one since these two films have quite a lot in common. Both films revolve around treasure hunter Benjamin Gates (Nicolas Cage) as he searches for a fabled treasure with the help of his father Patrick (Jon Voight), his best friend and tech expert Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), and his girlfriend Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger). In both films, Ben’s quest for the treasure sees him having to pull off a daring heist that immediately puts him in hot water with the FBI, specifically agent Peter Sadusky (Harvey Keitel). And in both films, Ben and company end up in a race against time with a rival treasure hunter who’s willing to use whatever means necessary to find the treasure before they do, although there are points where they’re forced to work together to find the next clues and overcome dangerous obstacles. Really, the only major differences between these two films are the treasures themselves and the locations that Ben and the gang travel to. With all this in mind, I decided that, for today’s post, I’ll be abandoning the traditional format that I do for these retrospective posts and discuss these two films simultaneously rather than separately. Personally, I feel that if I did it the other way around, there’s a good chance that I wouldn’t have had enough material to talk about by the time that I’d get to the second film due to the potential risk of repeating myself, and I fear that this would’ve severely impacted the quality of the post as a result. In other words, this whole situation can best be summed up by one of the most notable clues from the second film.

“These twins stand resolute…”

The first National Treasure, released on November 19th, 2004, opens with a young Benjamin Gates being told the story of a legendary treasure by his grandfather John (Christopher Plummer). The treasure in question is a vast collection of relics from various empires that was discovered by the Knights Templar. They would then go on to form another brotherhood known as the Freemasons which, by the time of the Revolutionary War, included several key figures from America’s founding fathers who swore to keep it out of the hands of the British empire. As for the Gates family, their involvement with the legend of the Templar treasure began when Ben’s ancestor Thomas received one of the sole clues of its existence from Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence (“The secret lies with Charlotte”). Years later, Ben finally locates the Charlotte, a ship that ended up stuck in the Arctic, with the help of tech expert Riley Poole and entrepreneur Ian Howe (Sean Bean). And while the treasure isn’t contained within the ship’s confines, they do find their next clue, which suggests that a hidden map is located on the back of the Declaration of Independence. However, tensions between Ben and Ian develop when the latter suggests that they steal it. Ben naturally opposes the idea, resulting in Ian and his henchmen heading off on their own accord to find the treasure first. And unfortunately for Ben and Riley, they fail to convince anyone of Ian’s plans and the existence of a map on the back of the Declaration, including National Archives archivist Abigail Chase. Thus, Ben realizes that, since Ian will most likely destroy the Declaration after finding the map, the only way to protect the most important document in American history is to steal it himself.

For the sequel, National Treasure: Book of Secrets (released on December 21st, 2007), Ben and his father Patrick find themselves facing a troubling dilemma when black market antiquities dealer Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) comes forward with one of the mythical lost pages from the diary of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassinator, John Wilkes Booth. When it’s revealed that Ben’s great-great-grandfather Thomas Gates’ name is on the page, Wilkinson suggests that Thomas was the true mastermind behind Lincoln’s assassination since he’s listed as ‘Artifex’ (the Latin term for ‘architect’). And yet, since this all contrasts heavily with the Gates family’s long-standing story of Thomas being a heroic figure who gave his life in order to keep Confederate sympathizers from discovering a mythical treasure, Ben immediately sets out to clear his ancestor’s name. In doing so, Ben, Abigail, Riley, and Patrick discover that the treasure that Booth and his followers were looking for was the ancient Native American city of gold, Cibola. But as their investigation continues, Ben and company soon realize that they’ll need to find the mysterious ‘Book of Secrets’ that contains a wide array of Presidential documents that provide the truths behind some of the most notable moments in American history like the JFK assassination, Watergate, and the mystery of Area 51. The only problem, though, is that the book is exclusively reserved for Presidents, resulting in Ben suggesting the only solution that he can think of; kidnap the President (Bruce Greenwood) to learn about the book’s location.

I should probably start things off by pointing out the obvious… yes, these films can get incredibly ridiculous when it comes to their plots. Whether it’s the first film’s set-up of the Founding Fathers orchestrating the safeguarding of a vast treasure or the reveal in the second film that Cibola is hidden beneath Mount Rushmore, it’s safe to say that these films are far from being the most historically accurate when it comes to their interpretations of U.S. history. And sure enough, this was the main reason why neither film was that big of a hit with critics as they felt that they were just way too goofy to be taken seriously. However, to paraphrase the Rotten Tomatoes consensus for the first film, if you’re willing to accept all the ludicrous lengths that these films often go to, you’ll find them to be solidly entertaining action-adventure flicks that manage to overcome this potentially catastrophic shortcoming because of how well-directed they are. Thanks to the top-notch direction from Jon Turteltaub, these films fully succeed at maintaining the kind of fun and light-hearted atmosphere that has often defined the classics of the action-adventure genre, including, of course, the one franchise that I’m sure many have compared these films to over the years, the Indiana Jones series. They also benefit from some genuinely terrific pacing, which means that there’s never a dull moment that would give you enough time to poke holes in its logic, even if it’s during a scene where the characters are simply talking rather than partaking in one of their elaborate schemes. There’s just something about these characters gradually figuring out their next objective or the meaning behind the newest clue that they’ve found that’s utterly satisfying, and because of this, the moments where they finally find the fabled treasures more than deliver on the feeling of true emotional catharsis.

Obviously, a lot of this stems from what the discovery of these treasures means for Ben and his family. In the case of the first film, his quest to find the Templar treasure ends up proving all his family’s dissenters wrong who, for years, had thoroughly believed that it was one of history’s greatest myths. And as for Book of Secrets, the discovery of Cibola is the evidence that both he and his father needed to prove that Thomas Gates wasn’t the one who orchestrated Lincoln’s assassination. With that said, while I’m not going to spend too much time comparing these two films, especially due to the obvious reason of how similar they are, I will say that Book of Secrets arguably has a few slight advantages over its predecessor. Namely, the factor of the quest to clear Thomas Gates’ name makes the film’s stakes feel more personal. It’s also arguably a bit better-shot than the original, but I attribute that more to the natural evolution that most sequels go through rather than the fact that there was a notable change in cinematographers, with the first film being shot by Caleb Deschanel and the sequel handled by the duo of John Schwartzman and Amir Mokri. Really, though, at the end of the day, these two films are quite on par with each other when it comes to their overall quality. Both feature some excellent action set-pieces and they also benefit greatly from being largely shot on-location. Obviously, the big finales of both films were filmed on sets (which, to be fair, are great in their own right), but many of the key scenes were filmed at the proper historical landmarks, such as the National Archives, Mount Rushmore, and Mt. Vernon. And through it all, these two films are properly anchored by their great collection of likable protagonists portrayed by the franchise’s excellent ensemble cast.

National Treasure Nic Cage

It all begins, of course, with Nicolas Cage who, despite his usual reputation on the internet as one of the most over-the-top actors in the industry, delivers one of the more subdued performances of his career as Ben Gates. Sure, the sequel does give him a few instances where he delightfully chews the scenery (most notably in the sequence where he and Abigail ‘make a scene’ at Buckingham Palace), but overall, these films serve as a good example of how that reputation he’s garnered is perhaps a bit unwarranted. Diane Kruger is equally excellent as Abigail Chase who, despite some instances in the first film where she’s the damsel in distress, is almost immediately established as being Ben’s equal on an intellectual level. Naturally, this means that Kruger and Cage have wonderful chemistry, and while Book of Secrets does open with the two of them in an estranged relationship, the fact that it stems from Abigail wanting Ben to take her opinion more seriously does feel like a narratively appropriate conflict for these characters. And to close out the main trio, there’s Justin Bartha as the Gates family’s always reliable tech man Riley Poole, who also serves as the franchise’s biggest source of comic relief. Sure enough, he more than succeeds in that capacity as Ben’s lovably dorky sidekick (e.g. when the gang finally finds the treasure in the first film and Riley primarily takes pleasure… in finding the exit (“Look… stairs!”)). But at the same time, a lot of what makes Riley’s status as the comic relief work as well as it does is the terrific rapport that Bartha has with Cage, which really sells their characters’ friendship and how truly loyal Riley is to Ben’s endeavors regardless of whatever crazy scheme he comes up with. Riley also gets to have a great standout moment in the sequel where he gets to be the one to reveal the existence of the President’s ‘Book of Secrets’ thanks to his recently published book on the Templar treasure and other famous myths, especially once all his research is ultimately proven right when the gang finds it in the Library of Congress.

Moving over to the franchise’s supporting cast, the biggest standout of the bunch is Jon Voight as Ben’s father Patrick. Admittedly, he doesn’t factor into the first film that much up until the end where Ian and his crew take him hostage, but there is a real satisfaction to seeing Ben’s dad go from a guy who never believed in the treasure’s existence to someone who’s more than happy to have been proven wrong and then proceeds to thoroughly relish in its discovery with his son. This then results in him having a more prominent role in the sequel where he has greater stakes in the quest to clear Thomas Gates’ name. After all, the story of Thomas’ sacrifice is one that had been directly passed down to him by his grandfather, Thomas’ son Charles, who had to witness the death of his father firsthand as seen in Book of Secrets’ opening scene. Another great standout is Harvey Keitel as FBI agent Peter Sadusky. While Sadusky’s primary role in the series is to be the one who pursues Ben whenever he commits a federal crime, he also forms a friendly rapport with Ben and is shown to have a natural understanding of the importance of the Templar treasure as evident from the reveal at the end of the first film that he’s a part of the Freemasons. The sequel also brings in some fun new additions to the cast, namely Helen Mirren as Ben’s mom (and Patrick’s estranged ex-wife) Emily and Bruce Greenwood as the President of the United States, who Ben, of course, ‘kidnaps’ to find out the location of the Book of Secrets. Their roles in the film are admittedly rather minor (even though Mirren does end up participating in the finale, where she and Voight prove to have some solid chemistry as Patrick and Emily begin to reconcile), but they’re both still very much welcome additions to the franchise.

Finally, we come to the main antagonists of this franchise, Ian Howe in the first film and Mitch Wilkinson in Book of Secrets, who are quite arguably the prime examples of how truly similar these two films are. Both characters are well-to-do businessmen with shady backgrounds who are always accompanied by a group of henchmen in their efforts to consistently stay on Ben and company’s tail. However, like I noted earlier, there does come a point near the end of each film where the two sides are forced to partake in an uneasy alliance to continue the hunt for the treasure, which ultimately doesn’t end well for the antagonists (in different ways that I’ll elaborate on later). Now, if I were to compare these two villains, it can be argued that Ian plays a more pivotal role in the first film’s plot than Mitch does in the sequel’s. In other words, almost every key sequence in the first film sees Ben, Abigail, and Riley being pursued by Ian and his team, which helps make them feel like more of a consistent threat. By comparison, despite the moment where they break into Patrick’s house and clone his phone to track their calls, there’s only one major sequence in Book of Secrets where Ben and company are directly chased by Mitch’s crew. And while they do end up taking Emily hostage in a moment that directly mirrors Ian’s move of kidnapping Patrick in the first film, they don’t cross paths again until after Ben has both ‘kidnapped’ the President and found the Book of Secrets. Ian also has the advantage over Mitch when it comes to having the more memorable set of henchmen, whereas Mitch’s henchmen are so one-note that they don’t even partake in the finale. Although, to be fair, the first film did see one of Ian’s goons fall to his death so, if anything, Mitch’s crew did manage to dodge a bullet on that one. Ultimately, though, both Sean Bean and Ed Harris fully succeed at being solidly charismatic foils to Nicolas Cage. And despite everything that I’ve just said that would potentially imply that Mitch isn’t as good of a villain as Ian is, he does get the more interesting finale to his character arc when he nobly decides to stay behind to let Ben and his family escape from the flooding city of gold. It does result in his death, but Ben proceeds to honor this sacrifice by ensuring that Mitch is properly credited for Cibola’s discovery. By comparison, the first film simply concludes with Ian and his crew being arrested by the FBI.

But now we come to the biggest question surrounding the current state of this franchise… will there ever be a third National Treasure film? This is something that has seemingly been in the cards for more than a decade at this point since plans for a potential follow-up were, in fact, announced in 2008 not long after the release of Book of Secrets. But then, for the next few years, nothing really came out of this development apart from a few comments from the filmmakers that claimed that it was in the works. Part of this situation can arguably be attributed to the fact that, in 2014, Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney decided that they weren’t going to renew the first-look picture deal that Bruckheimer’s production company had with the studio. This was all during a time where Bruckheimer’s non-Pirates films weren’t doing so well financially, such as 2010’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and, perhaps most infamously, 2013’s The Lone Ranger. Since then, the only film that Bruckheimer has made with Disney was the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean film, Dead Men Tell No Tales, which, to its credit, was a reasonably successful hit at the box-office back in 2017. But now let’s flash forward to this year which, for Bruckheimer, began on a great note with the long-awaited third installment of the Bad Boys franchise, Bad Boys for Life, which still stands as the highest-grossing film of the year. And if that wasn’t enough, another highly anticipated follow-up to a Bruckheimer production that’s been in the works for quite some time, Top Gun: Maverick, is set to come out this December. But for the purpose of our current discussion, our focus shifts to the opening weekend for Bad Boys for Life, when it was announced that the film’s writer, Chris Bremner, was being brought on to become National Treasure 3’s new writer. Not only that, but back in May, Bruckheimer also announced that a National Treasure TV series was in the works for Disney+. And while it has been reported that this new show will be focusing on a different and younger cast, those same reports have also noted that the show itself will retain the same overall concept of its cinematic counterparts.

And so, I think it’s safe to say that after more than a decade of uncertainty, the long-proposed third installment of the National Treasure series will finally be seeing the light of day sometime in the future, which is a development that I’m more than excited about. While I’ll admit that my most recent viewings of these two films was the first time that I’d seen either of them in several years, I was immediately reminded as to why they were some of my favorite films growing up. In fact, I even still remember going to see them both in theaters when they first came out (the second film even came packaged with a Goofy short, How to Hook Up Your Home Theater). Simply put, for a franchise that some could describe as being Disney’s attempt at trying to have their own Indiana Jones style franchise (you know, before they acquired the Indy rights themselves…), I’d argue that they do succeed in that regard. Thanks to an excellent cast and solid direction from Jon Turteltaub, these films are incredibly entertaining popcorn flicks. Now, like I said before, I do recognize that these films can get incredibly silly when it comes to some of their big plot-threads. As such, I admittedly wouldn’t recommend that anyone use these films as a reference guide when it comes to U.S. history even though there are some legitimate historical facts (e.g. the letters that Benjamin Franklin wrote using the pseudonym ‘Silence Dogood’) that are peppered in alongside all the… well, not-so-true ones. But once again, I’d argue that Turteltaub’s stalwart direction is what ultimately kept these two productions from being undone by all that, and because of this, I think that the National Treasure films are some of the best examples of why you don’t always need a ‘smart’ script to deliver a great film.

As for ratings, I gladly give both the original National Treasure and National Treasure: Book of Secrets a 5/5! rating!

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