Given the $350 million worldwide gross of 2004's 'National Treasure,' a sequel was a foregone conclusion. Then along came last year's 'National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets,' which defied all conventional wisdom regarding sequel profitability by actually outgrossing its predecessor by a cool $100 million. Add in some respectable reviews, the return of the entire cast from the first 'National Treasure,' and the injection of some fresh new ideas and faces, and you have the rare follow-up that -- if still not a great movie -- is in most ways an improvement over the original.
The adventure begins when treasure hunter Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) is tipped off by Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) to a page from the diary of Lincoln's famous assassin, John Wilkes Booth, which allegedly links Ben's great-great grandfather to the plot. Of course, the page also includes embedded clues to a treasure map, which leads to an ancient city made entirely of gold.
Since Gates can never resist the lure of booty, he enlists his father Patrick (Jon Voight), faithful tech guru Riley Poole (Justin Bartha) and, despite her protestations, his ex-girlfriend Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) to join him on his quest. The ensuing action stretches all the way from Washington DC, to Paris, to London, and finally to, of all places, South Dakota. Along the way there will be a few surprises, including duplicitous villains (all is not as it may appear!), as well as an appearance by Ben's mother (a welcome Dame Helen Mirren).
'National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets' telegraphs just about every one of its twists and turns, and since we're already familiar with the first 'National Treasure,' we know just what kinds of tricks and puzzle-solving Ben will use throughout his journey (this guy can see secret codes in a smudge). 'Book of Secrets' follows the well-worn template mined by any number of adventure films, stretching all the way back to the afternoon serials of the '50s -- quickly setting up the main quest, introducing the bad guy, adding a dash of romance, and underlining it all with a moral quest that has as much (if not more) to do with family honor than gold bullion. It may not be fresh, but it works.
'Book of Secrets' most obvious modern influence is, of course, the Indiana Jones movies, and if Cage as Ben Gates is no Harrison Ford, he makes a plausible and likeable Indy-lite. He's able to convince us immediately that, like Dr. Jones, he's really a do-gooder in mercenary clothing. Gates' mission in 'Book of Secrets' is not so much to find the gold city and what-not, but to clear his family name and, in the process, restore some respectability to the profession of archeology. This earnestness elevates the 'National Treasure' movies above most recent Indiana Jones rip-offs (case in point are the 'Mummy' movies, which seem like soulless theme park rides by comparison), and gives the action needed weight, so we don't just feel we're watching a bunch of bored actors miming in front of blue screens and being chased by CG creatures.
The cast memebers are all noticeably comfortable in their roles. Bartha in particular has really come into his own, bringing an impressive charisma to what should be the sidekick role (he actually has a much better character arc than the lead he's supporting), and Kruger manages to bring a real spark to her sparring with Cage. Though I've always considered Voight's character a stiff, Mirren has great fun in the role of Ben's mom, and as always, classes things up considerably. Even Harris manages to add spice to what would otherwise be a dull, standard-issue villain role.
Truth be told, 'Book of Secrets' is formulaic to the point of being a tad plodding in spots (perhaps hopping one location too many), and at times the historical details fly by so fast I had to hit the rewind button just to keep up, but the slick visuals, snappy pacing, fun performances, and sense of jovial derring-do ultimately win out. 'Book of Secrets' actually improves upon the original 'National Treasure' for me because it just feels tighter, and with less of the rough edges. It's a fun, highly enjoyable sequel and the perfect Saturday-night Blu-ray.
'National Treasure: Book of Secrets' is presented in 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video, and framed at 2.40:1. It's a generally strong presentation, though I found a aspect lacking.
The positives are many. The source is predictably pristine, with excellent sharpness and detail. The image is flush with depth, and rarely looks like anything but sparkling, three-dimensional high-def. Colors are likewise well saturated if a bit processed, which gives fleshtones a slightly artificial cast. The palette is also tweaked towards orange, so don't expect a particularly realistic-looking transfer.
Blacks are less impressive. While deep, shadow detail falters due to a heavy black crush. I also noticed some motion artifacts, with ringing on some sharp lines. Compression artifacts are not a problem, except for a smidgen of noise on some of the most saturated hues. Still, if 'Book of Secrets' isn't a perfect presentation, it's quite attractive.
Disney departs from their usual PCM presentation to go for an English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/24-bit) on 'Book of Secrets.' It's a fine mix, one suitably polished if not quite as aggressive as I expected.
Certainly, this is a dynamic and polished track. The deep low bass and sweet, powerful highs ring out from the front speakers with great impact. Dialogue isn't overwhelmed by all the action, so volume issues aren't apparent. Surround use, however, isn't always sustained. Discrete effects definitely make their presence known, but I could have used more generalized atmosphere, as well as improved integration of the score. At loud volumes, however, 'Book of Secrets' does make more of an impression, but sometimes subtlety sings loudest.
'Book of Secrets' hits Blu-ray and DVD day-and-date, and it comes with a wealth of extras. Disney has also bumped up all the video extras to full 1080 resolution, so they look great, too. (Optional subtitles are provided on all of the supplements in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese.)
'Book of Secrets' is a fun, totally enjoyable popcorn flick. It lacks some of the freshness of the original, but the cast members know their characters inside and out and the ease of familiarity seals the deal. This Blu-ray is pretty strong, with good video and audio and a ton of extras. It's not absolutely top-tier, but I think fans will still be satisfied.