The founding fathers of the “National Treasure” franchise wisely know not to tinker with a formula that inexplicably works.
Nicolas Cage, Jon Turteltaub and Jerry Bruckheimer discovered the secret of alchemy with the first movie three years ago, turning mediocre action spiced with American lore into box-office gold, and the same is likely to hold for the second chapter in their history text.
“National Treasure: Book of Secrets” is another romp through the past that flits from one disjointed action sequence to another, gussying it all up with crowd-pleasing morsels of fact and rivers of crazy legends that turn out to be true.
Knuckle-headed as the movies are in historical context, they sure know how to reel in great casts. Joining Academy Award winners Cage and Jon Voight and fellow “Treasure” veteran Harvey Keitel is Helen Mirren, fresh off her Oscar win for “The Queen,” along with Ed Harris.
The last time, Cage’s history buff and puzzle solver Ben Gates swiped the Declaration of Independence and used a treasure map hidden on its parchment to uncover a vast hidden fortune.
This time, he and dad Patrick (Voight) are stung by an accusation that an ancestor was a conspirator with John Wilkes Booth in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The claim is backed by a long-missing page from Booth’s diary produced by Mitch Wilkinson (Harris), a man with an ax to grind about his own family legacy.
True to action formula, producer Bruckheimer, director Turteltaub and screenwriters Cormac and Marianne Wibberly feel compelled to start Ben out as estranged from the girlfriend with whom he ended the first movie, archivist Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger). That’s so they can have those cute love-hate moments of blossoming romance all over again as they inevitably reteam to fetch clues and piece together the mystery.
Voight is given his own estrangement to deal with in Ben’s mom, Emily (Mirren), an authority in American Indian languages who has not spoken to her hubby in 32 years. But it turns out the Gates boys need her expertise as the trail eventually leads them to myths of a lost city of gold the Indians left behind.
Also back is Justin Bartha as Ben and Abigail’s tech-geek partner, Riley, and Keitel as the FBI guy again forced to try to bring Ben in. Even the president of the United States (Bruce Greenwood) is drawn into the quest, Ben’s mission forcing him to sneak a peek at a fabled book of secrets to which only Oval Office occupants are privy.
Quiet and unassuming as it is amid the big stunts and car chases, a little adventure Cage and Greenwood share is one of the movie’s most-satisfying scenes.
Greenwood, who played John F. Kennedy in “Thirteen Days,” has the aura of a president — or at least, the aura we’d like our presidents to project. You almost wish the movie would take its cue from “Air Force One” and let the commander in chief lead the action, rather than Cage.
The movie does have a decent dose of droll humor, which perfectly suits Cage.
“My girlfriend kicked me out, I’m living with my dad, and my family killed President Lincoln,” Cage’s Ben laments early on.
Harris’ role is crafted with more inner conflict and nobility than most bad guys, and he brings a nice air of melancholy to the character. It seems like a waste to have Mirren in a role that almost any 60-something actress could play, but she and Voight do manage some moments of humor.
As with the first movie, “Book of Secrets” leaps around like a choppy travel documentary, Ben going overseas this time to find clues in Paris and London and again solving seemingly incomprehensible riddles with ridiculous flashes of insight.
The film closes with the tease of a third chapter in the franchise, some mystery in the president’s book that could send Ben and his pals on another treasure hunt. They’ve only worked their way through four score and seven years of American intrigue with the first two flicks, so there’s plenty of U.S. history left in which to muck about.