Jerry Bruckheimer has always insisted he cares less about critical acclaim than commercial appeal. "We make movies for the common man," he said almost three years ago, as Black Hawk Down was crash-landing in theaters. "The pictures that I've made over the last twenty years or so have been very successful, so I am pleasing somebody. Might not be pleasing the critics or some of the journalists, but the masses...." Ah, the masses do indeed adore his messes, to the tune of some $14 billion in box-office receipts for such cris de coeur as Top Gun, Flashdance, Pearl Harbor, The Rock, Gone in Sixty Seconds and Con Air. For love or money, it's all the shame; the man makes money hand-over-iron fist, and there's not a bloody thing a critic can do to stop the masses from direct-depositing their hard-earned into his overflowing bank account.
He's had his share of bombs, most recently the royally dreadful King Arthur, but with Pirates of the Caribbean added to his list of deeds, Bruckheimer's even been allowed a measure of critical respect; not all his offerings feel cold and cynical to the touch. And his empire has spread from the big screen to the small, as he's produced the inexplicably beloved C.S.I. franchise, Cold Case, Without a Trace and The Amazing Race. His Web site even promises, or threatens, "JB Seminars" coming soon. God help the masses.
Till then, they will have to make do with National Treasure, which looked at first glance like one of those big-dumb-loud movies upon which Bruckheimer built his kingdom. It contains all the requisite elements: a hide-and-seek video-game plot, a hackneyed love affair between polar opposites, a smart-ass sidekick, a wealthy villain, a snarky father figure (in this case, an actual snarky father, played by Jon Voight) and, once more without feeling, Nicolas Cage as the hero. But with its social-studies storyline, having to do with centuries' worth of riches hidden by the Freemasons during the Revolutionary War, and a pedestrian director behind the camera (Jon Turteltaub, maker of The Kid and 3 Ninjas), National Treasure isn't any fun at all, which is ultimately the most damning thing you can say about a Bruckheimer movie. It provides not a second of celluloid to be appreciated as a guilty pleasure, not a single moment of big-dumb-laugh-out-loud enjoyment. It's not cheesy or crass, not dopey or even dumb-ass, just cold and empty and distant and familiar to the point of feeling fetid. It may, however, be the most honest movie Bruckheimer's ever made: The clues to the film's puzzle lie in the illustrations on the back of dollar bills, thus making it not only the first movie based on a stoner's monologue from Dazed and Confused, but also the sole Bruckheimer movie in which money is used to make more money.
Watching it is akin to sitting next to someone else hogging the PlayStation controller as they steer a character through a maze in search of clues that lead only to more clues that finally land in a dreary dead end. National Treasure (which is surely the most ironic title of the year) plays like a Da Vinci Code knockoff; readers of that beloved best-seller will perk up at references to the Knights Templar, if nothing else. It's also a retrofitted redo of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, with Voight and Cage doing iffy riffs on dialogue traded by Sean Connery and Harrison Ford. Imagine if that movie were really, really boring and, voilà, National Treasure.
Cage, now wholly bereft of charisma or charm or...what's the word?... usefulness, plays Benjamin Franklin Gates, a cross between Indiana Jones and Stanley Goodspeed, his nerdy scientist/action-hero character from The Rock, Cage's first film with Bruckheimer. (This marks his fourth collaboration with the producer, after the idiotic Con Air and boorish Gone in Sixty Seconds.) Gates comes from a long line of treasure-hunters (treasure-protectors, actually, but whatever) charged with locating and keeping safe a bounty that dates back to the building of the pyramids, the first Crusades, and the Revolutionary War, all seen in flashbacks that must have cost a fortune to produce but linger on the screen for mere seconds. (They have the feel of stock footage, too, like outtakes from historical epics Bruckheimer was going to make but lost interest in halfway through shooting.) Benjamin's grandfather (Christopher Plummer) and father wasted their lives searching for the loot, and it's up to Benjamin to redeem the family name -- by, in this case, stealing the Declaration of Independence, which has on its back an invisible map revealed only when it's doused in lemon juice, warmed with a hair dryer and viewed through 3D glasses Benjamin Franklin left in a brick in a wall outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
Benjamin's accompanied in his quest by wisecracking Riley Poole (Justin Bartha) and along-for-the-ride kidnapping victim Abigail Chase (Troy's ho-hum Helen, Diane Kruger), a boss at the National Archives; federal agent Sandusky (Harvey Keitel, whose entrance was greeted by giggles at a preview screening); and baddie Ian Howe (Sean Bean), who's always one step ahead of Benjamin because, well, "he has unlimited resources and he's smart," but one of copious nonsensical explanations used to fill in gaping plot holes. Not that one longs for any dollop of realism in an adventure like this, but when the entire screenplay is pilfered from the minutiae of American history texts, with references to the Ben Franklin-penned Silence Dogood letters of 1722 to the makers of the Liberty Bell (Pass and Stow), a little credibility would go a long way. Toward what, I have no idea.