Basically, it goes like this: In order to prove that his great-great-grandfather was not part of a conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln, in 1865, historian and treasure hunter Ben Gates must find a pre-Colombian city of gold hidden somewhere in the Americas. I wouldn't pay a defense attorney two plugged nickels for this strategy, but plenty of Americans will drop nine bucks to see a big-screen version of how this improbable nugget of history plays out.
National Treasure: Book of Secrets catches up with 2004's National Treasure, which portrayed Gates (Nicolas Cage) in full-court defense of the Declaration of Independence, then imperiled by a dastardly grabby-hands Brit. The document held clues to the immense titular fortune, and the chase had Gates scrambling into, atop and under some of our most revered national structures. On his second treasure-seeking outing, Gates stops by such esteemed stateside locales as the White House, Mount Rushmore, the Library of Congress and Mount Vernon, as well as doing a little sight-seeing and breaking-and-entering in Paris and London, respectively.
Book of Secrets, from the high-octane, low-intellect House of Bruckheimer, is directed by Jon Turteltaub, as was its predecessor. At just over two hours, the film moves at a good, engaging clip. It's only when someone isn't careening, falling, kidnapping the president or otherwise engaged in action that the film flatlines. Extended comic arguments between: Gates and his sorta girlfriend and archivist Abigail (Diane Kruger); Gates and his smirking aide-de-camp, Riley (Justin Bartha); and Gates' dueling historian parents (Jon Voight and Helen Mirren), are all real buzz-killers. I can get petty squabbling at home; show me something cool, like the world's kookiest drainage system that highlights the last reel.
The screenwriters don't waste much time on exposition: It's never totally clear how finding the lost city clears up the Lincoln plot, or why the FBI is involved, except, I guess, some law enforcement has to publicly grumble to balance Gates' flagrant disregard for private property. There's another poorly developed subplot involving Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris), the descendant of some Confederate group, which was -- dig this -- looking for the city so it could sell it and win the war. This fanciful twist exists only to make Wilkinson the adversary, though the movie punts on his villainy by never fully sketching him out and, in the conclusion's Big Cheat, messing with what little motivation he does have.
Still, we all know this is just a goofball romp, and when Book of Secrets finds its groove -- in that slot between Indiana Jones and The Da Vinci Code -- it can be enjoyable brainless fun. Puzzles and ciphers turn up in the most unlikely places, and there are a couple of winks to other national mysteries, such as Area 51, that could reasonably extend the franchise. (You heard it hear first: National Treasure 3: Page 47.) The film is just barely fast enough that hopefully you won't notice what a deadweight actor Cage can be, how witless the “snappy” repartee really is, or how wasted are such pros as Mirren, Voight, Harris and Harvey Keitel. Only Bruce Greenwood lands a small, breezy role that feels like more than turgid support purposefully dialed down to accommodate Cage's lack of charisma.
This is the adult-friendly season, when the studios load us up with high-minded Oscar bait. But if you've rather see something silly and shiny, let Book of Secrets lead you through its idiotic maze for a couple of hours.