Action movies produced by Jerry Bruckheimer have become their own brand over the past decade and change. The best of them and by "best," we should the "most guiltily pleasurable" are wonderfully outlandish cartoons, with big stars, bigger explosions, and a winking sense of their own ridiculousness. The following sentence may be a one-way ticket out of the Serious Film Writer's Club, but facts are facts: If you're so inclined, Top Gun, Armageddon, Con Air and The Rock all have a consistently funny, over-the-top, flag-waving glee to them that sort of transcends their deep-tissue stupidity. (Pearl Harbor might join this list if it didn't have pretensions of being a Serious Historical Romance.) Working with a rotating stable of caffeinated craftsmen like Tony Scott and Michael Bay, Bruckheimer has produced an auteurist's body of work ultra-violent pop art, where a Corvette might drop out of the sky at any moment. In the last couple of years, Mr. Bruckheimer has taken this sensibility into the world of family films with mixed results. Pirates of the Caribbean was the first great swashbuckler since The Mask of Zorro and the first great pirate film in half a century. And now we have National Treasure (2004), a decidedly less exciting popcorn movie that tries to mix Indiana Jones, The Da Vinci Code, and several strands of conspiracy theory in one blandly entertaining package. Unfortunately, it features no Corvettes falling from the sky a shame, given the inherent ridiculousness of its premise. Here's the setup: Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) is the youngest in a seven-generation family of "treasure protectors" who've wasted their lives looking for a fabled secret pile of loot. No one even knows exactly what "the treasure" is, though they do call it "the treasure" an awful damn lot; all they know is that it's deeply important, and somehow involves the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, and at least one signer of the Declaration of Independence. Unlike his forebears, Gates hunts treasure with the help of a millionaire sponsor: Ian (Sean Bean), a Boromir-like criminal adventurer. After a painfully expository opening scene in the Arctic during which Gates figures out a string of clues on a clay pipe while blathering out loud he realizes the treasure map is hidden in plain sight on the back of the Declaration of Independence. Soon, Gates and Ian are in a Mission: Impossible-style race to see who can steal the Declaration first.
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The theft of the Declaration is actually a fairly small part of National Treasure: Most of the running time is devoted to dragging the audience on a silly scavenger hunt involving national landmarks, hidden messages in dollar bills, pseudonymous letters written by Ben Franklin and (no, really) 200-year-old 3-D glasses. It's like PBS's "History Detectives," only with more running and goofier dialogue. On a parental level, there's probably a lot to like here: National Treasure is an all-ages adventure featuring a hero who uses his brains, not his fists and the story itself is a conspiracy-theory primer on American history that wouldn't be out of place in an episode of "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" But there's also something sort of tepid about the proceedings; it feels a bit like all the blandest bits of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade strung together without tanks or Nazis. And Nicolas Cageologists will be sad to hear that he's entirely too normal here he's mildly funny, but doesn't make any of the kooky dramatic choices (needless accents, ranting about the orifices of Greek gods) that made his other Bruckheimer performances so fun to watch. Putting it another way: He's more Gone in 60 Seconds than Con Air, which feels a bit like a wasted opportunity. Come on: You're walking around carrying the Declaration of Independence in a plastic tube. Couldn't you be just a little more unhinged? Buena Vista's DVD release of National Treasure features a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with room-filling Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Supplements include "National Treasure on Location" (11 min.), two deleted/extended scenes with an introduction and commentary from director Jon Turteltaub, a look at the opening scene animatic (2 min.), an alternate ending (2 min.), and promos for other Buena Vista titles. Keep-case.