A breezy, entertaining popcorn flick with a dash of smarts, 2004's National Treasure far surpassed my admittedly low expectations. In contrast to last year's The Da Vinci Code, a similarly breezy popcorn flick begging to be taken seriously, Nicolas Cage's flick never aspired to be anything more than Indiana Jones Lite.
With National Treasure: Book of Secrets, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Jon Turteltaub have all the necessary pieces in place for a quality sequel. Cage, Jon Voight and other key castmembers are back for the follow-up, joined by two impressive additions: Oscar-winner Helen Mirren and multiple Oscar nominee Ed Harris. Aiding their efforts is an intriguing premise involving John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln assassination -- the perfect launching point for another lively journey through the pages of American history.
Unfortunately, Book of Secrets crashes and burns shortly after takeoff, with Cage and Co. delivering a lackluster follow-up largely devoid of the fun and excitement of the original.
The sequel's story starts off shortly after the events depicted in the first movie. Once dismissed as deluded conspiracy nuts, Ben Gates (Cage) and his father Patrick (Voight) are now regarded as respected historians thanks to their discovery of the long-lost Knights Templar treasure. But their newly restored family reputation is suddenly imperiled when a mysterious southerner (Harris) surfaces, proffering what appear to be the previously missing pages from the diary of John Wilkes Booth. Not all that big of a deal, except that the missing pages happen to implicate Ben's great-great grandfather as the primary architect of the Lincoln assassination.
Convinced of their ancestor's innocence and justifiably unsettled by the discovery's history-altering implications, father and son set forth to uncover the truth and once again restore the Gates family's good name. With each successive clue comes a new, earth-shattering revelation, and their endeavor quickly evolves into a quest to find the fabled Lost City of Gold, a treasure-packed site reportedly constructed by Native Americans long before the Europeans arrived.
Ben's treasure-hunting cohorts Riley (Justin Bartha) and Abigail (Diane Kruger) are once again pressed into duty as comic relief and eye candy, respectively, and Ben's mother (Mirren), conveniently a renowned expert in pre-Colombian language and culture, joins the hunt as well. Hot on their trail is Harris and his cronies -- and they've got guns.
For the most part, the hunt is an underhwelming one. The original National Treasure cleverly played off America's obsession with conspiracy theories, taking a few kernels of historical truth and developing them into several enticing "what if" scenarios. Book of Secrets, in its determination to ratchet up the stakes, abandons that formula in favor of pure storytelling spectacle. A Presidential kidnapping! A city made entirely of gold! A secret White House book that holds truth to every American conspiracy since the Revolution! Whatever.
For the most part, the cast's notable additions add little to the movie. While Mirren's character has her moments parrying with on-screen ex Voight, Harris's villain is a surprisingly toothless one -- and not nearly villainous enough.
The lone exception among the cast's newcomers is Bruce Greenwood, whose turn as the American President is surprisingly...presidential.
Among the cast's holdovers, Bartha's character is once again offered little more than the occasional witty one-liner, and Euro Kruger appears to have made little progress in mastering the American accent since the first movie -- her linguistic lapses are as distracting as ever. Stars Voight and Cage are perfectly fine reprising their resptective roles as father-and-son adventurers, but gone is much the tension that made their relationship interesting the first time around.
I won't give away Book of Secrets' ending, but I can wager a guess that you'll be as unimpressed with it as I was. If 2004's National Treasure was Indiana Jones Lite, this disappointing sequel could very well be called National Treasure Lite.