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Film review: In his underrated masterwork, Nicolas Cage proves he’s America’s “National Treasure”
Nicolas Cage gets into character before a scene in "National Treasure." (Courtesy of Kirk Weaver and badaman)

Film review: In his underrated masterwork, Nicolas Cage proves he’s America’s “National Treasure”

“I’m gonna steal the Declaration of Independence.” And so he does. Those seven wacky words, uttered by our hero Nicolas Cage, have come to symbolize the thrilling gleefest that is “National Treasure.” I’ll be the first to say it: Mr. Cage should have been nominated for the Academy Award for his performance as the nerdy history ...

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“I’m gonna steal the Declaration of Independence.”

And so he does. Those seven wacky words, uttered by our hero Nicolas Cage, have come to symbolize the thrilling gleefest that is “National Treasure.” I’ll be the first to say it: Mr. Cage should have been nominated for the Academy Award for his performance as the nerdy history buff and amateur treasure hunter Benjamin Franklin Gates. That he wasn’t demonstrates the idiocy of a boorish organization like the Academy — a group that has proven to have no good taste, no diversity and no sense of humor.

“National Treasure” is a milestone for several reasons, but let’s start with the actors. You couldn’t have pulled together a more perfect batch of nuts to give this story the necessary fun and fancy-free glee. Within a thankless role, Cage totally immerses himself with a commitment equal to that Hollywood’s greatest method actors (Monroe, Brando, and Dean would beam with joy).

It’s a movie where every performance is balls-to-the-wall enjoyable. Justin Bartha (“The Hangover”) as the perpetually tormented best friend Riley is just as impressive. Diane Kruger outdoes her thankless and exploitative role in Tarantino’s overrated “Inglourious Basterds” by playing another German woman with an even more horrendous accent. Jon Voight plays Ben’s sensible dad who hates his son’s treasure-hunting guts, Harvey Keitel randomly cameos as a humorless FBI agent and Sean Bean wins the award for “Most Non-Deaths in a Sean Bean film.” Truly, Ben Gates and his Merry Brand of Ben Franksters make up an ensemble that’s eclectic and alive at all moments.

Watching the certifiably insane “National Treasure” is one of the great pleasures of modern movies. An engaging action flick from start to finish, “National Treasure” puts on the world’s most perverse scavenger hunt. It outdoes the myriad of cookie-cutter Marvel clones by having a powerful sense of individualism, lunacy and risk. It’s an example of a blockbuster that doesn’t just appear, make millions of bucks and disappears into the wild blue ether. Like “The Day After Tomorrow” (equally implausible) and “Norbit” (equally underrated), “National Treasure” functions both as riveting comedy and unpretentious fun.

It possesses a marvelous ballsiness in its flippant attitude towards history, believability and organic plot continuity. We hippity-hop from one exotic (American) locale to another, in search of an elusive, unknowable Egyptian-Roman-Knights Templar-Freemason-Founding Fathers treasure. Like all great adventure stories, it isn’t about the destination; it’s about the journey. And boy, what a nutty, Fuller-like, crazy journey it is.

It is a shame, then, that critics didn’t have their humor radars on when they watched Nic Cage crying when somebody speaks the words “Declaration of Independence” and “lemon juice” in the same sentence, or Diane Kruger evading a bald baddie with the help of a sassy black woman working at a carniceria. Roger Ebert himself claimed “National Treasure” was some cheap knock-off of “The Da Vinci Code.” Untrue: The latter film is insufferably serious and tries too hard to bamboozle you with its bleak, Dan Brown dreariness. “National Treasure,” on the other hand, is a true comedy that refuses to take itself seriously, proudly sporting its kookiness on its sleeve. And, unlike “The Da Vinci Code,” it actually encourages kids to crack open those American history books to do some further research on the liars, the back-stabbers, the double-crossers and the Three-Fifths Compromisers that helped form the hot mess that was early America.

Idea for the much needed sequel: “National Treasure 4: The Search for National Treasure 3.” Nic Cage plays himself combing the streets of Los Angeles in search of the lost screenplay of “NT 3,” which went missing after “Book of Secrets” came out in 2007. He follows clues that lead him to rediscover Orson Welles’ original cut of “The Magnificent Ambersons,” JFK’s order to assassinate Marilyn Monroe (a secret Soviet spy) and whatever really happened to Baby Jane. Tom Hanks turns out to be the evil one. Meryl Streep plays the newly elected President who gives Cage the book from “Book of Secrets.” Jennifer Lawrence plays the spunky love interest who’s so down-to-earth. And David O. Russell directs, injecting the yarn with his signature twist of zany, humorous and plucky.

Contact Carlos Valladares at cvall96@stanford.edu.

About Carlos Valladares

Carlos Valladares is a senior double-majoring in Film and American Studies. He loves the Beatles and jazz, dogs and dance. Were he stranded on a desert island, he'd be sure to take some food— and also, copies of "A Hard Day's Night," "The Young Girls of Rochefort," "Nashville," "Killer of Sheep," and anything by Studio Ghibli. You can follow his film writings at http://letterboxd.com/cvall96/. He was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles.