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Sep 11, 2008

CAGEFEST: The Nic Cage Film Festival - National Treasure

CAGEFEST just keeps on truckin'. For previous entries, click here.

Daniel Getahun of Getafilm has established himself as one of the shining stars of the movie blogging community in just over a year's time. Reporting from the Twin Cities, where it seems as though every film goes before they go anywhere else, Daniel sees just about all of them, from the hits to indies to docs to foreign language flicks. I'm proud to call him a blogging friend and owner of one of my favorite sites. Here, he swallows his distaste for Nic Cage (he's just not quite as vocal about it as I) and gives us some reasons why National Treasure might not be so bad.

"Finding a National Treasure or: How I Learned to Stop Hating and Love Ben Gates"

Forgive me if this seems a bit strained. It's just that Nicolas Cage has been my least favorite actor - by a country mile - for going on about a decade now. The tics, the accents, the shouting - utterly unbearable for me. So when Fletch asked me to defend the indefensible and write a positive argument for a movie starring Cage, well it was simply a challenge that I had to take on and a fear that I had finally had to face.

Actually, it wasn't that hard. I love National Treasure. Moreover, I love Nicolas Cage as treasure hunter Ben Gates. Somehow, someway, a little action adventure that I didn't see in the theater slowly grew on me over a solid year of every-other-day showings on one of the Encore movie channels. The end result: me sitting in the theater at an opening weekend showing of National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets.

Between the witty, strong-willed woman (Diane Kruger), the sarcastically hilarious sidekick (Justin Bartha), and the deliciously deviant villain (Sean Bean), National Treasure almost plays like a second generation version of an Indiana Jones movie. And although Ben Gates is no Indy, he has his own charming personality quirks, like knowing archaic colonial ciphers and codes, and playing a brilliant game of show-and-tell with the original Declaration of Independence. Best of all, Cage attempts no accent and only has a couple of spaz attacks. The fact is, Indy is the spoiled, handsome action star while Gates is the nerdy underdog hero with the superstitious father (Jon Voight). Who would you rather root for?

If the stereotypical characters and the cheesy dialogue don't satisfy your need for a guilty pleasure, watch National Treasure for some decent action sequences and an insanely elaborate conspiracy theory. Who can't appreciate the entertainment value in that? Also, I've haven't even mentioned yet that the National Treasure franchise is one of the few action adventure series being produced these days that's appropriate for the whole family: no language, sex, gory violence, or otherwise inappropriate content, and no dark themes that can misinterpreted as subliminally evil. It's just honest-to-goodness silliness that you can watch with your kids on movie night.

There you go: Nicolas Cage, against all odds, as a provider of fun, wholesome cinematic entertainment.

Now don't anyone dare use that sentence out of the context of this movie.

Aside from owning one of the best blog names around (Careful With That Blog, Eugene - a play on an old Pink Floyd song), Paul Arrand Rogers is also the owner of an acerbic wit, a Muppet fetish and an all-Lebowski influenced rating system. It's no wonder I've become a fan of this relatively new LAMB (#116). Paul originally wrote a much lengthier piece here (nearly 2,000 words), and should he post it on his site, I will update here with a link to it. Though good, I'd wanted to keep these relatively short; much of what was cut was a synopsis of the plot.

It was 2004. Steven Spielberg was making The Terminal, George Lucas was making Star Wars Episode III, and Harrison Ford was playing Jethro the Bus Driver in Water into Wine. To make matters worse, Brendan Fraser had seemingly given up swashbuckling and mummy bashing in favor of more serious pursuits (Crash) and Angelina Jolie had just raided her last tomb.

For über-producer and explosion maestro Jerry Bruckheimer, the timing couldn’t be riper. After the smashing success of Pirates of the Caribbean and Bad Boys II, America was not only willing to forget King Arthur (minus Keira Knightley in blue paint), but fully embrace whatever he could cook up next.

Luckily for Nic Cage, it involved him.

In a post Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade world, numerous heroes attempted to wrest the fedora and bullwhip from Indy’s hands. Pitfall Harry had a son, Jack T. Colton romanced a stone, Lara Croft carried two guns but couldn’t sustain a franchise, and Rick O’Connell killed the same mummy…twice. Clearly, nobody could out-adventure the man in the hat. Bruckheimer had a different plan: Out-lecturing him.

See, the other part to the Indiana Jones mythos is that Jones was one hell of a professor. His lectures were interesting, he had his pick of college girls, and he was always getting called off on assignment to pick up one relic or another – lots of time off.

National Treasure has Ben Gates, who, like Indiana Jones, rescues treasure from the clutches of devious foreigners, but, unlike Indiana Jones, isn’t very fun. He’s a bookworm, you see, and not like Indy where he pulls a book off a shelf or flips to a random page in a random book and finds what he’s looking for before jetting off to India, Egypt, and Parts Unknown. Gates lectures. Gates reads. Gates searches. Gates solves puzzles. But by Jove, Indy, he doesn’t do anything!

All this would be fine, if Gates had the charisma to pull this off. Sadly, Harrison Ford isn’t playing him. It’s Nic Cage, and boy is he hungry for a payday.

This movie? It’s bad. I knew that walking out of the movie theater as a 16 year old, impressionable idiot, and I know that now. It was successful, for the most part, due to America’s hunger for Indiana Jones-style movies. It’s true. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, lackluster as it may have been, out grossed the National Treasure franchise (and Tomb Raider, and, while it’s $141 million away from The Mummy franchise’s mark, we’re comparing one movie to three).

There’s a lure to Indiana Jones, as Roger Ebert said, because “it's the kind of movie where the hero gets out of bed wondering what daring exploits and astonishing, cliff-hanging, death-defying threats he will have to survive in the next ten seconds.” By contrast, Benjamin Gates gets out of bed and geeks out about Freemason symbols and invisible ink. He does not swashbuckle, isn’t dashing, and certainly doesn’t have the same droll wit as Indy (though Cage really tries to get him there). He’s boring.

This is CAGEFEST though, so what of Nic? Well, truth be told, it isn’t his fault that the movie acts less like a thriller and more like the cure for insomnia. He tries really hard to put some life into the movie, he’s really excited about the twists, the turns, and his inexplicable ability to solve complex and inane riddles, but the script just isn’t there for him.

The script tries to be there for instead for his sidekick, Justin Bartha, who makes you pine for Indy 4’s Mutt Williams. Any attempt at suspense or drama with this film is needlessly smashed to bits by Bartha’s “funny” dialog. I don’t think it would have been better with a different actor, but not being stuck thinking about the retard who “wanted to go to the Baywatch” probably would have helped.

Otherwise, the movie suffers from the same thing that many Bruckheimer produced action movies suffer – overproduction. The movie has all the gloss of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (the 2005 movie was worse than this one), and suffers for it. Count the number of cuts from Nic Cage to Dianne Kruger to both to a different shot of both etc. in a scene where the two are merely changing. It’s unnecessary and distracting.

Cage does his all to drag this movie out of the library it’s rooted in, but such a task is nigh impossible when the script insists on showing you how everything is possible and connecting most of the clues to documents and artifacts that most Americans haven’t heard about to not give a damn about them. Cage is dealing with the unexplainable, much like Harrison Ford, but nothing in National Treasure begs to be explained.

It’s a genuine effort from Nic, but I believe that most of his movies are. He has a Christopher Walken-like tendency to accept any role thrown his way, and here, it’s a blessing and a curse. Cage made a lot of money, but he looked like a fool. As Riley Poole says, at least he gets the girl.

10 people have chosen wisely: on "CAGEFEST: The Nic Cage Film Festival - National Treasure"

Anonymous said...

Any article that praises Mutt Williams (LaBoof) as cool is immediately discounted in my book. Looks like another resounding win for Nic Cage and his fans, hopefully this Cagefest will successfully reinvigoratwe Nic's career.


Rachel said...

I gotta agree with Daniel here. It's just a fun flick to watch anytime and one of the more enjoyable NC flicks to come out in quite awhile. If we're comparing it to Indy, I prefer National Treasure to Temple and Crystal Skull. Haven't seen Book of Secrets, but one of these days.

Paul Arrand Rodgers said...

Temple is a classic. Blasphemy!

Daniel G. said...

Thanks for the kind words, Fletch. It's been my pleasure to connect with you and the 144 LAMBs that came after me.

I find it really funny that Paul and I have written such similar pieces here. Both of us make positive comparisons to Indy (and we both identify Gates' nerdiness), and both of us place any blame for mediocrity away from Cage himself. Turns out the only difference is that I enjoyed the stupid dialogue (including Bartha's lines) and the plot contrivances more than Paul did. Either way, my congrats to him on a well-reasoned debate!

Graham said...

Got I hated this movie and its sequel. I wrote a long post about the turdishness of various Indiana Jones knockoff, and I think this one scored 4.5 turds. Which is, you know, not good.

I will agree that it's not Cage's fault. Hell, (sorry Fletch) I like Nic Cage in just about everything he's in. He's either good, fun in a weird way, or enjoyable in a bad way. If he chose better movies, I'd probably like him alot.

But a post about the turdishness of all of his movies...that would take years.

THN said...

Great movie, and great reviews.

Fletch said...

Graham, I think what you say about Cage isn't really that far from my beliefs. I mostly enjoy giving him a hard time because it really seemed as though he made a conscious decision to sell out in the mid-90s, stringing together a ton of crappy movies and/or enjoyably bad blockbusters and stopped trying to act or challenge himself.

I was a fan before all that came.

Graham said...

In that case Fletch, it sounds like we agree completely. There are much worse actors aren't there. But there's maybe nobody who has done such crap with such talent. He really does deserve to be hated for that, much more than someone who just sucks but at least is trying.

Caleb said...

Cage isn't a bad actor, he's just done bad movies. Ah, the cures of the Costner.

the jaded viewer said...

I gotta admit. I liked National Treasure 2 and its sequels. Diane Kruger is hawt. Plus in the end they got rich for being treasure hunters. Go Capitalism!