National Treasure 2: Delightfully Bad

04 Feb 2008

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[Warning: National Treasure 2 Spoilers Ahead]

I absolutely love "find the treasure" movies -- even the delightfully bad ones like National Treasure 2. Don't get me wrong; I enjoyed almost every ridiculous second of it! One could easily point out numerous logical flaws in the movie, but the only thing that really challenged this moviegoer's quite enthusiastically suspended disbelief was Ed Harris' character.

What percentage of viewers, do you suppose, came away with the feeling that Ed Harris' character was painfully flat? I mean, there was little logical reason for him to be adversarial toward Cage's character. Had he simply shared his inside info with Cage from the beginning, the pair could have easily worked together to find the lost city of gold, thus ensuring Harris' character a place in the history books. But would that (a story about two guys working together) have been entertaining enough for today's audiences?

It was almost as though Harris' character was "bad" simply for the sake of being bad instead of for some deeper, plot-integral reason. Look at the infinitely more complex Raiders of the Lost Ark for a comparative example. Indiana Jones' bad guys were Nazis, which made Indy's race against them additionally imperative on a moral level (beyond simply attaining a prize). Makes you wonder whether Spielberg set Indy back in time for that specific reason; Nazis represent the superlative evil, right? Hey, Spielberg ain't dumb. (And, wow, I just realized his initials are SS -- how eerie!)

I have this wacky theory that Hollywood production companies are not as shallow as any of we plebes may surmise. We think we're smart to critique a film like National Treasure 2 on the grounds of flat characters or logical flaws. But I believe Hollywood is actually more calculated than that. I think they're quite often well aware of all of the flaws within a given movie prior to its release. (Not always, of course, as there are certainly flops from time to time.)

Any work of fiction, be it a book or a movie, does not technically need a traditional antagonist. In some cases (but certainly not all), the addition of a bad guy is a crutch used to make a weakish plot more exciting. Examples of plots that do not require adversarial relationships between characters would include disaster movies (the disaster is the adversary), pursuit movies (the prize is reason for the daring enterprise), "difficult circumstances" movies (the disease, misfortune, or inner madness is the challenge to be overcome), mysteries (puzzles to be solved), tales of moral conflict, love stories in which circumstances provide the tension, et cetera.

But, do current Hollywood movies require the presence of bad guys? Was the insertion of Ed Harris' character simply a misguided attempt to make a simplistic pursuit plot more complex and/or thrilling? I bet you there's a well-guarded metric out there -- an ROI calculation of sorts for such plot devices. Take a $90 million blockbuster with plot feature A alone and it reins in $180 million; throw in a villain (no matter how flat) and it bumps up to $250 million.

In this light, National Treasure 2 isn't about treasure hunting as told in the film; it's actually a hilarious self-referential commentary on (1) the movie business (which itself is a treasure hunt), and (2) the American public. And the commentary is this: The public is pretty dumb.

But, don't read into this too much. IMHO, knowing the secret doesn't diminish the good time had by all ... I still enjoyed dropping $30 for my fam to watch it and will do it again for the 3rd installment -- presumably the one that will deal with "page 47" in the president's secret book. So maybe I'm dumb as anyone else.