What makes a movie a box office bonanza? It strikes a chord in its expectant audience. Sometimes a sleeper such as Juno scores. Other times it's the tried-and-true, such as National Treasure: the Book of Secrets, that pleases those of us looking for escapism.
Critics complain about sequels being redundant. Of course, sequels are redundant, familiarity breeds contentment. A sequel is familiar, but it also has to have some chemistry if it is to be successful.
National Treasure: the Book of Secrets has chemistry. It's instructive that nationally before the feature shows, there is a Disney Goofy Cartoon. That may be because a fairly goofy feature is to follow.
National Treasure: the Book of Secrets is an absurd adventure, but its absurdity is wacky and warmhearted. You have to suspend your disbelief, but so what? National Treasure: the Book of Secrets delivers on what it sets out to be: lively and cagey.
Co-produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Jon Turteltaub, National Treasure II is about the inimitable Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage), who is shocked when Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) publicly reveals he has a page from the diary of John Wilkes Booth, which implicates Gates's great-great grandfather in the assassination plot against Abraham Lincoln.
Ben, his father (Jon Voight) and his buddy Riley (Justin Bartha) join with Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) to try to find a document to restore the family reputation. This quest leads to Paris, the United Kingdom, and the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Along the way, the intrepid bunch has to gain access into Buckingham Palace and the Oval Office at the White House, to unravel clues to a document that will redeem the Gates's honor. Somehow a city of gold gets involved.
The plot is somewhere between Teletubbies history and the world according to Bruckheimer. When I try to recount the plot, I feel silly. It's very silly. But the plot only serves as a launching pad for the wayward antics and chemistry of the characters.
As Ben Gates, Nic Cage has hair that looks like some dead animal. He has joined the cosmetic school of Robert Redford and Jack Nicholson, lowlighted by unnaturally dark eyebrows. Cage is trying desperately to cling to boyish-middle age. He doesn't do a bad job. Cage still has the tics, blank looks, and frantic gestures of a younger man.
Jon Voight joins him as Ben's addled father, Patrick. Jutin Bartha is back as tech-wiz Riley, and Diane Kruger reprises the romantic interest as the wife who is separated from Ben.
Three new members join the anxious cast; all are pros who add to the flair. Ed Harris ably portrays the villainous Mitch Wilkinson, whose endgame is to find a city of gold. Helen Mirren takes time off from regality as she plays Ben's mother, a professor at the University of Maryland. Her spite frightens Ben's father.
Perhaps the best of the newcomers is Bruce Greenwood, who plays The President. This President is from Yale, is curious, and knows history and architecture. Talk about unreality. The scenes between Ben Gates and The President provide the best chemistry in the film.
There were eight writers on the project, and occasionally they come up with clever lines. Riley says, "Mount Rushmore was a cover-up."
Randy Travis sings at a shindig for The President, as the movie tries to hit all demographics.
The climax of National Treasure II is bulky and lengthy. Remember, it's Bruckheimer.
The movie is thrills, spills, chills, and the Black Hills. It's a hectic, wobbly ride back to Saturday matinees, where escapism prevailed.
In National Treasure: the Book of Secrets, the creaky Cage swings wide open for business.
Escapism never grows too old.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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