"NATIONAL TREASURE" opens, breathlessly enough, in 1974, with an old but not quite senile man (Christopher Plummer) regaling his wide-eyed grandson (Hunter Gomez) with a tall tale of "treasure beyond all imagining."
At least he's got the "beyond all imagining" part right. And so begins one of the more implausible movies in recent memory.
Having been passed down over the ages through such secret societies as the Knights Templar and the Freemasons, the keepers of this ancient treasure, it seems, haven't been heard from since 1832, which is when the last living signer of the Declaration of Independence -- a document whose signatories were, as everyone knows, just lousy with Freemasonry -- died. But not before entrusting a clue about the location of the treasure ("The secret lies with Charlotte") to his loyal footman, who just happens to have been the young boy's great-great-great-great-grandfather, give or take a great or two.
Fast-forward to today, as that young boy, now grown and played by Nicolas Cage, is hot on the trail of the treasure. Well, not hot exactly, since when we discover the appropriately named Benjamin Franklin Gates, he's up to his anorak in snow in the middle of a polar ice field, where he and his team of treasure hunters are about to dig up an old ship containing not the treasure, but yet another clue. What's a Colonial vessel doing in a polar ice field? Who knows? After stumbling upon a meerschaum pipe containing another secret message, Ben engages in some clue solving more worthy of Batman than Sherlock Holmes, concluding that (are you sitting down?) the real treasure map could only have been written in disappearing ink on the back of the Declaration of Independence. "Precisely, Robin," you half expect him to blurt out to his young sidekick, Riley (Justin Bartha). "And that can only mean . . . "
. . . That the next stop is Washington, D.C., where Ben and Riley have now resolved to steal (yes, steal) the Declaration -- but only to prevent their erstwhile colleague Ian (Sean Bean), with whom they've had a falling out since Ian tried to blow Ben up back on the boat, from stealing it himself. That trick, of course, is facilitated by Riley, the geek Boy Wonder, who hacks into the security system of the National Archives by breaking into a janitor's closet in the nearby Metro station, where, naturally, all the important wires would be located. Puh-leeze. I can't even get on the subway with my bike if it's a minute before 7 p.m., but this joker can waltz into a restricted area of the transportation system with a couple of duffle bags of suspicious-looking high-tech gear?
From there the movie dives headfirst into incredulity as we rush from one picturesque historic site (Philadelphia's Independence Hall!) to another (Manhattan's Trinity Church!), all the while watching the clues and the silliness, but not the treasure, pile up.
And did I mention that Ben and Riley are accompanied on their only-slightly-illegal mission by a sexy National Archives curator (Diane Kruger), a rare manuscript specialist who at one point actually dumps lemon juice on the Declaration before blasting it with a blow drier? Pursuing them through all this is a dogged FBI agent, played by Harvey Keitel, who at least brings a little edgy hipness, if not exactly class, to the proceedings.
It would be one thing if there were at least some snappy dialogue or real sexual tension between Ben and his co-conspirator/love interest to leaven the increasingly ponderous unbelievability, but all the film's best lines ("What's the preservation room? A place where they make delicious jams and jellies?") go to the goofball, Riley. As it is, the film, scripted by Jim Kouf with Cormac and Marianne Wibberley, has precious little to offer grown-ups of any intelligence or sophistication, let alone skeptical pre-teens. You don't so much suspend your disbelief as throw it in, with resignation and a sigh.
Rated PG, which must stand for "particularly gullible," it's "Raiders of the Lost Ark" for people who slept through American history class.
NATIONAL TREASURE (PG, 124 minutes) -- Contains relatively mild action violence and a couple of dusty corpses. Area theaters.