It’s never a good sign when you can figure out a movie’s secret plot before the characters involved. Then again, it’s not very hard to do when this plot is the same as the first time you saw it. In National Treasure: Book of Secrets, it’s obvious from jump what will happen, owing to the blueprint established by the remarkably profitable ($173 million) National Treasure.
The primary draw in both films is Nic Cage, odd and spasmodic, undeniably charismatic. (The fact that his most gonzo moment here — the moment when he appears to lose his hand to a grisly fate inside the hole in a rock — is lifted wholesale from Roman Holiday doesn’t matter a whit: he’s still entertaining and weird and thank goodness for him.) As Ben Gates, terminally patriotic and perversely smitten with U.S. history, Cage is again frequently mesmerizing. If only the film around him were even slightly up to his energies.
Ben opens National Treasure 2 with a not-exactly riveting retelling of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, in which Ben’s ancestor, Thomas Gates (Joel Gretsch), is deeply involved. In Ben’s version, delivered to a rapt institutional audience, at the moment Wilkes kills Lincoln, Thomas gives up his life to keep a nation-building treasure hidden from the pro-Confederacy Knights of the Golden Circle. Thomas’ young son watches this horror, passes on the story to his great-grandson Patrick (Jon Voight), who has in turn regaled Ben with it for years. But lo! As soon as Ben completes his lecture, an interloper presents a footnote: Mitch Wilkinson (good sport Ed Harris) has a page of Wilkes’ diary that suggests, egads, that Thomas was in reality a “mastermind” in the assassination. The only way to clear his family’s name, Ben determines, is to locate the treasure that Thomas was hiding.
The ensuing adventure revisits many of the first film’s themes and plot points, and early on suggests that FBI will be crucial to the goings-on. Not only is this not true, but the film also underscores its status as Adventure for Dummies in its introduction of the Hoover building, noted by the actual sign outside FBI HQ and a caption, naming it exactly the same. The agent in charge of keeping up with Ben and company is Sadusky (Harvey Keitel, revisiting, sort of sideways, his part in Thelma & Louise, as friendly but slightly grumpy official pursuer), but he’s always a step or two behind, and never helpful in the plot, though he is, of course, Harvey Keitel, ever lively and always welcome.
Considerably less vivacious are Ben’s buddies from before, insecure tech/sidekick Riley (Justin Bartha) and prosaic love interest/archivist Abigail (Diane Kruger). In order to repeat the dynamic from the first film more or less exactly (as well as to copy the couple’s tension from the Romancing the Stone pictures, not to mention the circa ’40s movies they copied), Ben and Abigail are marked from the start of the sequel as “estranged” — she’s kicked him out of her manse (just how she affords it is not clear) and he’s got to break back in to get a few items necessary for the commencement of the hunt. She happens home just as he and Riley are leaving with the loot, and so she’s pulled into the quest as well.
The repetition continues: Patrick means well and has loads of info stored up in his brain as well as his considerable library, which means that Ben gets to stand by a fireplace and read out important clues from an ancient tome. But, you know, dad is bad with new tech, which means he doesn’t divine the obvious, that his cell phone is cloned by the villains, thus allowing them to follow along as Ben conducts each step of the hunt, or that he’s also got a romance in the works. This thanks to the discovery of a clue that needs particular translation — a plank of wood with precolonial Native American carvings. It so happens that the expert in this field is Emily (Helen Mirren), Ben’s mom. She hasn’t spoken to Patrick for 32 years, but, being a Native American linguist, she happens to be the only possible translator of the plank, and so the entire crew traipses over to her house to solicit her aid. (As unfit for such frolics as Mirren may seem, she is definitely game, though not quite as gifted at making the dreadful expository dialogue palatable as Cage, who remains unsurpassed when it comes to such silliness.)
The hunt takes Ben and company from Paris (for about two minutes, where a couple of English-speaking cops offer to arrange for Ben “a ride” to Buckingham Palace) to London to Washington DC, each location affording glimpses of historical monuments and occasions for Cage’s antics. When Ben declares that “someone else is “after the treasure,” Riley sighs in exasperation, then explains, “Of course someone else is after the treasure. It’s the axiom of treasure hunting.” (In case you forgot!) The climactic hunting takes place at — or rather, under — Mount Rushmore, which allows for some grand shots of the monument, before eth film descends, literally, into a cave that resembles the final setting for the first film, complete with tricky stone slab-doors, teetery surfaces, dark shadows, and a showdown with the villains that leads to Ben’s reignited love with Abigail, moral uplift, and inevitably reinforced patriotism.
This, if you care to think it through, remains the two films’ most interesting premise and end, that patriotism is grounded in history, even if such history reveals that that the making of the U.S. was not a fulsome and completely un-nefarious enterprise. Consider this fabulous fictions: here the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood) is a history buff with a sense of justice and balance. Even if Ben’s focus is the Native Americans’ treasure’s use as a means to clear the Gates name, the president (according to Ben’s suggestion) will restore it to its rightful owners. Yes, this result is unlikely and not exactly secured in the movie’s finale. But if “history,” as the National Treasures submit, is worth digging up to demonstrate the courage and brilliance of all those founding fathers, it may also be that the less self-aggrandizing aspects are also compelling and instructive. And maybe even surprising.