Fri, Dec 17, 2004 - Page 17 News List

A nerd's search for Freemason'streasure

Recent visitor Nicolas Cage has been heavily publicizing his latest film, which has done well at the US box office

By Stephen Holden  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Nicolas Cage hunts clues on the back of a US$100 bill, and Diane Kruger plays a National Archives conservator.


Maybe, just maybe, an eight-year-old could pick up an interest in American history from watching National Treasure, that is, if the child could stay awake for this sluggish two-hour trudge through landmarks in Washington, Philadelphia and New York. It's far more likely, however, that a child who could stay awake through this fanciful reality game show would come away believing the bogus mythology that detonates it with a squishy thud.

That mythology, derived from Freemasonry, holds that a map, drawn in invisible ink on the back of the Declaration of Independence, contains clues to the whereabouts of the Greatest Treasure Ever Told About. The Knights of Templar, some of whom were Founding Fathers, supposedly left a trail of coded clues that begins on a frozen ship north of the Arctic Circle and ends in the bowels of Lower Manhattan under a crumbling system of dumbwaiters.

It should be easy enough to acquire that treasure. All you have to do is steal the Declaration of Independence, unroll it on a kitchen table, apply a little fresh-squeezed lemon juice, heat with a handy hair dryer, and presto, letters and numbers appear. Another major clue can be deciphered only through special spectacles designed by the real-life Benjamin Franklin and hidden behind a brick near Independence Hall.

Mind you, the cache isn't any old pot of fool's gold at the end of a delusional rainbow. Following the dishonorable tradition of those rigged 1950s quiz shows that strained to top each other in grand prize money, the ultimate jackpot is a subterranean nest of dusty museum tchotchkes that the movie passes off as priceless Egyptian artifacts. How much is it worth? One-half of 1 percent of its value yields one character a palatial mansion, a shiny red sports car and heaven knows what else.

Film Notes

Directed by: Jon Turteltaub

Starring: Nicolas Cage (Ben Gates), Diane Kruger (Abigail Chase), Justin Bartha (Riley Poole), Sean Bean (Ian Howe), Jon Voight (Patrick Gates), Harvey Keitel (Sadusky), Christopher Plummer (John Adams)

Running time: 131 minutes

Taiwan Release: today

National Treasure was produced by that Hollywood Midas, Jerry Bruckheimer, and directed by a Hollywood hack, John Turteltaub (Three Ninjas, The Kid). With its ludicrous frisson of patriotism and a nod to The Da Vinci Code, a more cynical grab for Hollywood gold is hard to imagine. What does it tell us but that a couple of important clues are to be found in drawings on the backs of hundred-dollar bills? But National Treasure is so witless and shoddy it suggests that Midas may have lost his touch. High-concept hubris tends to work that way.

Leading the treasure hunters is a history nut, Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage), an arch-nerd whose notoriously eccentric family has been hunting the treasure for several generations. Accompanying Ben are his techie sidekick Riley (Justin Bartha), whose fizzled wisecracks add up to some of the year's lamest movie dialogue, and Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), a blonde, motor-mouthed National Archives conservator. Abigail's possessive attitude toward the precious document that Ben steals under her nose in a rushed, suspense-free caper sequence, is to stick out her arm and scream, "Gimme!" Later in the game these three are joined by Ben's beleaguered dad, Patrick (Jon Voight).

Once the Declaration is stolen, Ben must elude not only the FBI (Harvey Keitel leads the bumbling investigative team that hovers in the background) but also a former team-member, Ian Howe (Sean Bean), who has turned traitor and now leads a gang of gun-toting thugs.

For Cage, National Treasure is a low point in a cunningly managed career that seesaws between serious screen acting (Leaving Las Vegas, Adaptation) and schlock. Looking like a mangy hound dog with patches of hair missing, Cage skulks through a role that demands a wry Harrison Ford-like sense of irony. The actor, who can't even muster a half-smile or a raised eyebrow, wears the numbed expression of a lazy star who can't be bothered to find the character inside his role.

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