National Treasure could have been a lot of fun—a wild, adventure-filled treasure hunt echoing both Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Da Vinci Code, with a bracing dollop of American history thrown in. But from this film's pedantic and pedagogical beginnings—a series of flickering flashbacks reminiscent of early History Channel—having fun is not the first thing that springs to the mind.
The shaky plot structure propping up this breathlessly paced but deliberately drawn-out intrigue has to do with a legend about a secret society of warriors who, about a thousand years ago, discovered an unbelievably rich treasure trove in an Egyptian temple and vowed to keep it from the world forevermore. The rituals of the Knights Templar—whatever their actual genesis—became the basis for the secret society known as the Freemasons, which counted among its members some of the men who signed America's Declaration of Independence. According to the far-fetched scenario in National Treasure, these historic gents, including the wily Benjamin Franklin, had brought the ancient treasure to America, found a really good hiding place for it, and devised an elaborate code full of riddles and ciphers that would reveal the treasure's whereabouts only to someone knowledgeable enough and clever enough to work it all out.
And that someone, we're asked to believe, is a fellow named Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage), whose family has been the sole keeper of the secrets of the Knights Templar for six generations. When first we meet Ben, he fully expects to come across the lost treasure within the remains of a 200-year-old ship which lays frozen in the Arctic tundra. But all he finds there is an elaborately carved pipe—which, Ben realizes, reveals a riddle whose solution concludes that the exact location of the treasure can be found in a map drawn (in invisible ink, of course) on the back of the Declaration of Independence. Imagine that.
Forthwith, Ben decides that he and Riley (Justin Bartha), his wisecracking sidekick, must steal the original Declaration from the National Archives before Ben's arch-enemy (and former financial backer) Ian (Sean Bean) attempts the same thing. To carry out their elaborate Topkapi-like heist, Ben enlists the aid of a spunky archivist, the beautiful Abigail (Diane Kruger), and the begrudging cooperation of his dad (Jon Voight), who long ago gave up his belief in those Freemasonry fables. (Voight is a real hoot as he wanders about shouting “There is no treasure!” Or, “All you'll find is another damned clue.”)
With the Declaration safe in their hands, the hero and his intrepid band—along with the villain and his henchmen—race through some of the nation's most historic sites in Washington, Philadelphia and lower Manhattan, barely pausing to ponder the complex riddles and conundrums that keep popping up. After scrambling around the Liberty Bell and atop the steeple at Independence Hall, they finally arrive in New York, where, by this time, Ben is in the clutches of the FBI (led by Harvey Keitel) and is being used as bait to trap the bad guys, who now have possession of the document and are using it as barter to get at the treasure. After ditching the FBI by leaping into the Hudson River from the deck of the carrier Intrepid, Ben and friends end up on this fantastic Hollywood set—a nightmarish construction of rickety, rotting stairways encircling a seemingly bottomless black pit—which is supposed to be what the sub-cellar of Trinity Church looks like, down under the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway.
Now, as noted earlier, all of this could have been lots of fun. If only Harrison Ford, or someone just as good, had played Ben. Whatever acting skills Nicolas Cage may possess, an ability to be ironic is not among them. Nor does he look like he has the brainpower to decipher a New York City parking ticket, let alone an arcane riddle. No matter how many times Ben pretends to “get it,” you just know he doesn’t. And where's the fun in that?