For all intents and purposes, ‘National Treasure’ shouldn’t have worked. Its plot was ridiculed by every magazine on the racks, its trailer was mocked by critics, and its theatrical release was written off months before anyone had seen the final film. To be fair, director Jon Turtletaub hadn’t exactly set himself up for a rosy reception -- tossing Nicholas Cage, Benjamin Franklin, and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ into a blender was a risky endeavor to say the least, but to everyone’s surprise, ‘National Treasure’ was a well-calculated risk that grossed $350 million worldwide, gained an even larger audience on DVD, and set the stage for a higher-grossing sequel. Still, the biggest shocker to me wasn’t that Turtletaub made money or garnered a rabid following, but that his film was genuinely good.
History buff and part-time archeologist Benjamin Gates (Nicholas Cage) has a problem. Using a centuries-old clue rumored to lead to the location of a treasure hidden by the Founding Fathers, Ben discovers that a subsequent clue is written on the back of the Declaration of Independence. Surviving an ambush by his shady financier Ian (Sean Bean), Ben and his assistant Riley (Justin Bartha) are forced to steal the Declaration to protect it from Ian’s men. With the Declaration in hand, a feisty National Archives official named Abigail (Diane Kruger) at his side, and a tenacious inspector (Harvey Keitel) at his heels, Ben has to decipher a series of clues to uncover the whereabouts of America’s greatest treasure.
I should apologize to anyone who hasn’t seen ‘National Treasure’ -- my synopsis probably caused furrowed brows, shaking heads, and rolling eyes. Honestly, I can’t think of a way to describe the film that doesn’t make it sound ridiculous. I even skipped over the clue-to-clue structure of Ben’s search, the multi-layered riddles that a think-tank of professors couldn’t decipher, and the gunplay and crypts that litter Turtletaub’s tale. It’s obvious that the film shoves real history in the back seat to allow action and adventure to dominate the plot. It’s even more obvious that the historical “facts” presented in the film are products of the filmmakers’ imagination and have no bearing on anything resembling the truth. In that regard, Turtletaub takes his greatest cues from the ‘Indiana Jones’ series -- the story gains momentum from the hunt, and it develops thrills from the pursuit. Everything else is secondary and, for the most part, unnecessary to a viewer’s enjoyment.
It’s this abandonment of strict logic that allows ‘National Treasure’ to hit the notes it does. By the end of the first act, it doesn’t matter that the story is a sham or that its history is manufactured -- the cast has created an engaging trio of heroes and a seedy band of villains that generates real tension in a fantastic race for treasure. I instantly had flashbacks to the adventure films of my childhood, movies of a simpler cinematic construct. ‘National Treasure’ packs the screen with secret maps, tunnels behind gravestones, endless staircases descending into the earth, and every other whim Turtletaub could cram into Ben’s history-trotting adventure. The result is a whirlwind voyage that recalls tomb raiding classics of yesteryear, while establishing a distinctly modern rhythm all its own.
Most of the credit falls squarely on Nicholas Cage’s shoulders. He commits to his character with such conviction that his performance becomes the glue that holds the film together. Much like Harrison Ford did with Dr. Jones, Cage relies on his quick wit and magnetic personality to sell the audience on the character of Ben Gates rather than relying on the story of his hunt. His supporting cast ups the ante accordingly, delivering equally intense performances. Their chemistry is effortless and the humor of the film benefits as a result -- jokes are underplayed for laughs, character beats are repeated for amusement, and the heroes’ disorderly conduct is played for all it’s worth. By the time the credits rolled, I had a big grin on my face and a few warm fuzzies in my belly.
If ‘National Treasure’ has any weakness it's the film’s convoluted setup and absurdly complex treasure trail. If you can completely suspend disbelief, you’ll most likely roll with every plot-point along the way. If you grimace in the first fifteen minutes, I doubt anything Cage and company do will improve the situation. Personally, ‘National Treasure’ is a bundle of fun that I’ll continue to watch over the years. Tighter than its sequel and more original than other modern adventure films, it’s a rare actioner that almost lives up to the ‘Indiana Jones’ series. Cage isn’t as iconic as Harrison Ford and Turtletaub isn’t as gifted as Spielberg, but they’ve created a compelling film that people will continue to discover and enjoy for years to come.
’National Treasure’ features a respectable 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that bests its DVD counterpart in every way. Colors have received the usual high-def upgrade and scenes illuminated by torchlight look warm and inviting. Fleshtones are spot on, delineation is improved, and crushing isn’t the issue it was in standard definition. Fine object detail nets the most noticeable bump -- the slightest imperfections on the Declaration of Independence are crystal clear, pores and hair have been faithfully rendered, and daylight exterior scenes look fantastic. Some of the shots in Philadelphia stand out from the pack, offering fans reference level visuals that highlight every brick and building in the city streets.
Unfortunately, a few elements of the picture aren't as impressive, leaving me with the nagging feeling that we’ll see a more refined Blu-ray release of ‘National Treasure’ in the future. The problems I noticed all revolve around a slight inconsistency in the film's contrast levels. Darker scenes occasionally wash sharpness out of the picture and leave a murkier image in its place. It doesn’t help that a bit of noise pops up in heavier shadows, reducing the pop I usually rave about in my reviews. Don’t get me wrong, the Blu-ray edition of ‘National Treasure’ makes enough significant strides past the DVD to satisfy fans, but keen eyes will notice some minor issues that hold the transfer back from perfection.
Disney continues to deliver gift-wrapped audio goodies to high-def fans, with an uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track (48kHz/ 24-Bit/ 6.9Mbps) that adds substantial value to this release. Dynamics are strong and confident -- low-end LFE pulses are powerful enough to evoke tension, while clean treble tones present natural ambiance throughout the soundfield. Better still, the upgrade in precision and fidelity is readily apparent anytime a chase scene explodes onto the screen. Directionality makes immersion a cinch, pans are effortless, and the rear speakers are far more involving than the standard track on the DVD.
Just listen to the crunching snow and creaking metal as the film opens. Then enjoy the next few minutes as an onslaught of chaos showcases everything the track has to offer. The third act is a bit more subdued than the rest of the film, but an all-encompassing staircase collapse provides a welcome jolt to the system. The channels celebrate every shard of splintering wood in the soundfield, yet simmer with subtle acoustics when the action ceases. It’s in these sudden transitions from disorder to silence that the track highlights its designers' efforts and their attention to detail. I appreciate any mix where quiet conversations receive the same care as bombastic chases.
On that note, if I have any minor nitpick with the PCM track it’s that the sound designers artificially boost bits of dialogue that occur during louder action scenes. While I’m glad the lines aren’t overwhelmed, the looped nature of the dialogue is distracting and unnatural. Even so, Disney offers up a wonderful high-end audio track that will give fans a perfect excuse to toss aside their DVDs.
The Blu-ray edition of ‘National Treasure’ features all of the supplements from the 2-disc Special Edition DVD, as well as a few significant bonuses that I’ll discuss at length in the next section. The only real disappointment is that the video features are presented in 480i/p.
’National Treasure’ is a rousing adventure that will either strike you as a throwback adventure classic or as a nonsensical mish-mash of history and treasure hunting. As a huge Nicholas Cage fan, I threw logic to the wind, jumped on board, and had a great time. The Blu-ray edition may not boast a perfect transfer, but it does offer significantly improved visuals, an excellent PCM audio track, all of the supplements from the DVD, and a trio of new features exclusive to this release. I can’t guarantee you’ll enjoy ‘National Treasure’ as much as I did, but this is a solid Blu-ray release from Disney that deserves a solid recommendation in return.