By Vic Holtreman
Short version: National Treasure 2 works hard at being as entertaining as the original, but doesn't quite manage it.
In National Treasure: Book of Secrets, the whole gang is back, plus we have heavy-hitters Helen Mirren and Ed Harris to round out the cast. It's far from awful, but unfortunately "heavy" is a good word to describe this sequel, at least as it compares to the original.
The film opens five years after the end of the Civil War, where we find out that Ben Gates' (Nicholas Cage) heritage as a code breaker goes back to his great-grandfather Thomas. A pair or men bring Thomas a cypher to decode since he is known for his code breaking abilities. As it turns out (not suprisingly), these are bad guys. In particular they are Confederate spies trying to help win the war for the Union.
Apparently they didn't get the memo that the war ended five years prior.
In any case, this becomes apparent to Thomas just before they get their hands on the solution, which at this point is a mystery. Cut to present day where Ben's treasure hunting partner Riley (Justin Bartha) has tried to capitalize on their fame from the last discovery by publishing a book. He's not having much luck it seems and everyone seems to think of him as a sidekick to Ben instead of a partner. On top of that he's gone from multi-millionare to being broke. Much of the humor (some attempted and some successful) throughout the movie derives from his situation.
It seems that Ben and his father Patrick (Jon Voight) are having Ben's great-grandfather honored for his contribution during the Civil War when Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) throws a wrench in the works by accusing Thomas of being the mastermind behind the assassination of President Lincoln - and he seems to have evidence to back up his claim. In the meantime Ben's relationship with hottie Abigail Chase (played by Diane Kruger) has fallen apart with them acting like a divorced couple via her getting the mansion and him moving in with his dad.
When the news about Ben's great-grandfather becomes public his main concern is to clear the family name. Any monstrous treasure that they may discover along the line is beside the point to him and his father.
The quest leads them to Paris (which does have a funny scene between Cage and a couple of local policeman), London, the White House and Mount Rushmore. There are lots of connect-the-dots moments where conspiracy theories are interconnected, and the discovery of hidden clues is a bit of fun to watch as the whole thing plays out. Not a lot of fun, but it is mildly entertaining.
I think one problem is that having the crux of the issue be one of family honor causes the film to take itself a bit too seriously in overall tone and bogs down the mood somewhat. On the plus side, it's a good way to kill a couple of hours and there's nothing in the film that would be offensive to parents who want to bring the kids. A movie like this could easily be pushed into PG-13 territory and I did appreciate that they kept things at a PG level. I think that will pay off at the box office as well.
I always enjoy Ed Harris on the big screen whether he's playing a hero or a villain and Helen Mirren seems quite effortless in her performance (in a good way). Nic Cage is the same guy he was in the first film but Justin Bartha doesn't seem quite as funny in this one. If this one does well I have no doubt that National Treasure 3 will soon be on it's way.
Overall National Treasure: Book of Secrets was a mildly entertaining popcorn flick that you can bring the kids to without worries.