When I bought my ticket for "National Treasure: Book of Secrets," I was a little surprised to see it said "NTL TRSR 2" on it.
Because I sure as hell never saw "National Treasure 1." I didn't know it existed. Granted, to keep my reaction fresh, these days I try to go into movies knowing as little as possible about them. When I'm really on fire, I don't even remember my own name. I just come to in a seat and 'Hey, some previews are playing.' Sometimes I'm naked. Other times, I go out to my car afterward and find I'm in Canada. Sure, it's grueling, frequently humiliating, but that's how serious I take this.
Even so, I usually know enough about them to know when I'm seeing a sequel. The Internet says the original came out in 2004, though, which is a bit of a stretch between releases, and lets me off the hook completely, as I wasn't cloned until early 2005.
"Book of Secrets" opens with a lecture delivered by treasure-hunter Nicolas Cage about how, just as the Civil War was winding down, Confederate agents brought his ancestor a coded diary pointing the way to vast riches -- maybe enough to turn the tide of the war. Recognizing the danger, he burnt the diary before it could be used, and when the Confederates shot him, he died a hero.
Not so fast, says audience member Ed Harris, and whips out a surviving page of the diary with evidence that Cage's relative was a conspirator in the assassination of Abe Lincoln. Cage and Jon Voight, Cage's dad, are mortified: rather than being descendants of a national hero, they're apparently the poisoned offspring of history's greatest villain.
The only way to clear his great-grandfather's name, then, is to find that lost treasure, which is pretty awesome for Cage, since that's what he does for a living. Rounding up his buddy Justin Bartha, Cage trots around the world running down clues, dogged along the way by Harris and his gang of thugs, who want that gold for themselves.
"Book of Secrets" is meant to be a crowd-pleaser, which is something of a double-edged sword. The good edge: there's lots of jetting around and sneaking into places that aren't supposed to be snuck into. Something exciting is going on at pretty much every moment, and though most of the obstacles in Cage's way are arbitrary plot devices loosely tied to pieces of historical minutiae, it makes for lots of action.
The not-so-good edge: the characters are either blandly effective (Cage) or annoying pop culture knockoffs (Bartha). You know what we don't need more of? People saying "Awkwaaard!" in a singsongy voice. That doesn't make people laugh, it makes them do horrified double-takes.
So director Jon Turteltaub is good with the action, even when it's of the time-tested temple traps variety, but not so good with getting cool performances out of his actors. Especially frowny-face-inducing is his delusion that having as many people yelling excitedly at each other as possible is the Holy Grail of hilarity. Not true. The opposite is actually more true than that. It's a lot like "Indiana Jones," then, only with the repeated urge to sock everybody in the face. It's a constant battle between being entertained and being annoyed.
The ending's no less problematic. At what age are kids too old for fairy-tale perfect endings? I honestly have no idea -- six? Ten? It's meant to be fun and winning, and it is, a little, but it's also predictable and such a tidy package you can't help feeling a little cheated, too.
It's a tiring experience to be put off by a movie's characters, then get sucked into it by some inventive, tense action, then just when you're starting to think it's pretty good after all, someone goes and opens their clever-clever mouth and yanks you right back out of it. "Book of Secrets" would be a lot better if it tried less hard to make everyone in it so lovable.