'Book': More Sparkling Treasure

Brainy adventurer Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage, flanked by Helen Mirren and Diane Kruger) is back in
Brainy adventurer Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage, flanked by Helen Mirren and Diane Kruger) is back in "Book of Secrets." (By Robert Zuckerman -- Disney Via Associated Press)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 21, 2007

Benjamin Franklin Gates is a movie hero of the old school, a dashing treasure hunter with an obsessive interest in American history. Played by Nicolas Cage in the 2004 hit "National Treasure," Gates emerged as a new kind of leading man, one with the brains of Stephen Ambrose and the brawn of Indiana Jones. His idea of adventure is less to scale tall buildings than plumb the depths of the National Archives.

Cage is back in crackling good form in "National Treasure: Book of Secrets," and it's clear that with this installment, the filmmakers (producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Jon Turteltaub) intend for the franchise to resuscitate the derring-do and lighthearted entertainment of Saturday matinee serials of yore. And as a larky popcorn romp, "Book of Secrets" indeed recalls those classics, right down to the opening Disney cartoon short, in which Goofy buys a big-screen TV. (Just like the old days, sort of.)

"Book of Secrets" finds Gates faced with an unpleasant twist in his vaunted family history: It seems that his great-grandfather, long venerated as the man who in 1865 burned a page of John Wilkes Booth's diary in order to prevent the Confederacy from acquiring a cache of gold, was actually in on the scheme. At an academic conference, Ben and his father (Jon Voight) are confronted by an amateur historian (Ed Harris), who has his own tattered page of the diary proving that the Gates ancestor was no Civil War hero. Thus "Book of Secrets" makes its own kind of history, if only to propose a Washington scandal about a page that actually has to do with a piece of paper.

Ben and his father swiftly set out to prove Wilkinson wrong, enlisting the plucky team from the first movie: Ben's now-estranged girlfriend (Diane Kruger) and his nerdy, wisecracking sidekick (Justin Bartha). Leading the team on a whirlwind worldwide tour from Washington to Paris to London and back, Ben stops along the way to chat with his mother (Helen Mirren) about some ancient Native American hieroglyphs, finally leading the whole fam damily to Mount Rushmore for a spectacular finale. (Mirren, following in her Oscar-winning sisters' footsteps by stepping straight into a big-bucks blockbuster, seems to enjoy herself thoroughly as the University of Maryland's most tartly alluring history professor.)

It's been said by a far smarter colleague than I that the "National Treasure" movies are what "The Da Vinci Code" should have been, and I see my colleague's point. There's a swiftness and swashbuckling sparkle to the enterprise that makes it enjoyable if not particularly edifying viewing: This is, after all, a film that shows the sign outside the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building, then self-importantly types out the same words at the bottom of the screen.

But if viewers can overlook some of the more blatant dumb-isms, "Book of Secrets" provides its own good-natured brand of pulp pleasure, if only because it so guilelessly engages in the kind of conspiracy-mongering that would have Oliver Stone ritually pilloried. Everything from the JFK assassination to Area 51 is whiffed in this story, which comes to pivot on the existence of a secret presidential book that may or may not hold the key to every unsolved mystery since the founding of the Freemasons. What makes the "National Treasure" series so diabolically, hilariously brilliant is that it panders to both American paranoia and patriotic optimism.

It's no secret which impulse wins the day, as "Book of Secrets" takes viewers along on a rollicking caper that exists outside any conventional time frame. Leave the stopwatch at home and just enjoy the film's eye-popping set pieces, which include a sensational car chase through London (culminating in an ale-soaked run-in with a Fuller's lorry) and a climactic showdown in which Cage and Harris, balancing on an enormous pre-Columbian bongo board, seem to be competing for who's just reached the lowest point of his career.

Indeed, it's difficult to watch Cage impersonate a drunken visitor to Buckingham Palace and not be reminded of his searing, Oscar-winning performance in "Leaving Las Vegas." Now he appears in movies where he rides a motorcycle while his head bursts into flames. Between those two poles, "Book of Secrets" isn't Cage's lowest point, but rather represents a happy medium, allowing him to overact with abandon, and have fun along the way.

It's clear that everyone involved in "Book of Secrets" is having fun, and with expectations properly managed, the audience will, too. Among the movie's retro charms is that it aims to be the kind of wholesome entertainment that parents can enjoy along with their teens and tweens, inviting the whole family along as it careers between shots of dusty old books and high-tech computer screens. Just like the old days. Sort of.

National Treasure: Book of Secrets (120 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for some violence and action.

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