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The Pursuit of Loot

'National Treasure' Cunningly Races to a Foregone Conclusion

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2004; Page C01

"National Treasure" is the movie equivalent of comfort food: Think of it as a plate of gray roast beef, beige mashed potatoes and chartreuse peas all smothered in sepia gravy served on Wonder Bread in a diner somewhere between East Jonesborough and Potawatomi Run. Expect indigestion, expect cholesterol, expect little greasy Jujubes in your teeth for months and you can have a damned good time.

So: Expect comic relief from the sidekick, expect the shooters always to miss, expect the gal in charge of the Declaration of Independence over at the National Archives to have a face that launched 657 ships ("Troy's" Diane Kruger, up from the 457-ship rating I gave her in that review) and expect the father (Jon Voight) and the son (Nicolas Cage) to finally hug, and you'll have a good time.

Nicolas Cage, as Ben Gates, tries to steal the treasure and charm the girl, Diane Kruger as Abigail Chase, in the fun, paint-by-numbers action flick. (Robert Zuckerman -- Buena Vista Pictures)

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Cage, of the long jaw and the basset-hound demeanor, plays Benjamin Franklin Gates, history buff, mechanical genius and treasure hunter -- and the treasure he hunts is a family obsession, passed down generation to generation since an early Gates learned of a secret clue from the last signer of the Declaration of Independence. The clue, deciphered, would eventually lead to the loot of the Knights Templar, picked up by roaming Crusaders sometime in the Middle Ages but initially collected by the guys who thought the pyramid had an eye at the apex.

So the movie has one unexpected development: It doesn't hate the Masons and think they have been secretly leveraging history for 2,000 years through the Trilateral Commission, the Carlyle Group and the Boy Scouts of America. It just sees them as a fun bunch of guys who collected the key artifacts of civilization over the years and hid them away, fearing the despots who might use such a fortune to control the world. These are the guys that wear the fezzes and ride the motorcycles in the Memorial Day parades, right? Who would have guessed?

In any event, it turns out that many of the founding fathers were Masons and from that fact the film postulates its premise -- that the Templar treasure arrived in Colonial America and was stowed in a supersecret place. And as everyone in America by now certainly knows, the map is hidden on the back of the Declaration of Independence.

Thus the front half of the film is concerned with purloining that sacred document from its lair over on Pennsylvania Avenue, or at least a version of the Archives as imagined by Disney's art department. To make the heist more interesting there are two teams of thieves, one the benevolent Cage and his comic pal Riley (Justin Bartha, quite funny) and the other, not so nice, heavily armed, a group of Eurotrash commandos led by a blond Sean Bean, who wants the treasure not for enlightenment but because, well, it's a treasure.

Cleverness can be overrated but it can be underrated too, and the best thing about "National Treasure" is how clever it is. Cage is portrayed as a nebbishy genius, not a man of force or coolness, and his solution to the problems of the Archives installation is low-tech, clever, smooth and witty. Meanwhile, the Bean team merely means to blow its way in and kill everybody who gets in the way, but the actual body count is zero, though one stuntman who doubles for Cage takes a flying leap off the deck of an aircraft carrier in New York Harbor -- no big deal -- and lands in the East River and that's scary!

Structurally, the movie is of the school that might be called "one thing after another." It almost never slows down and seems to have been masterminded by an entire film crew on speed. Its best attribute is the decent chemistry among Kruger -- her character is kidnapped by the bad guys, rescued by the good and she rides with them to movie's end -- and Cage and Bartha. Someone must have visited the Quips.com Web site for the amusing dialogue, some of which actually fits the character in whose mouth it is spoken.

"National Treasure" does lose its way toward the end, where the climax seems to take place in either the leftover set from "The Goonies" or "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." Note to Hollywood: Huge underground wooden structures aren't that interesting anymore.

The director is Jon Turteltaub of . . . hmm, well of not much fame at all. He's a mechanic. The true auteur would be producer Jerry Bruckheimer -- "Top Gun" was only the beginning of his remarkably loud run -- whose house style is percussion and aggression as driven forward by bad rock music and a need to get to the bank before it closes. "National Treasure" will probably get him there early, and he'll be all smiles.

National Treasure (136 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for mild semi-violence.

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