Dir: Jon Turteltaub. US. 2007. 124mins.
The first National Treasure reaped sizable international box-office fortunes with a loopy gee-whiz amalgam of Indiana Jones derring-do and Mission: Impossible-style set pieces. Three years later, the inevitable sequel, dubbed Book Of Secrets, is as derivative of its sources as it is of the first film, resulting in a family-friendly action movie that, like it or not, should enjoy comparable success over the holiday season.

Opening today in the US, National Treasure: Book Of Secrets faces off with several high-profile studio pictures that will be targeting adults (Charlie Wilson's War), women (P.S. I Love You), and young men (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story). However, Book Of Secrets will be the sole family entry during the Christmas frame, although it could experience some competition from last week's stronger-than-expected Alvin And The Chipmunks. (Last year at this time, another family-skewing adventure, Night At The Museum, debuted, eventually tallying $251m domestically and another $323m overseas.) Though an action film, this Disney sequel, produced by popcorn-flick aficionado Jerry Bruckheimer, offers only mild PG sequences of violence, suggesting it will not conflict directly with the darker I Am Legend.

The first National Treasure earned approximately $347.5m worldwide, its haul divided almost in half between the US and international markets, which speaks to star Nicolas Cage's appeal and Bruckheimer's successful action branding. With a story arc that closely mirrors the original film, Book Of Secrets should also do well, unless audiences find the novelty of the conceit waning. Expect lucrative ancillary performances to be treasured by all those involved.

Ben (Nicolas Cage) teams up with on-again/off-again girlfriend Abigail (Diane Kruger) and sidekick Riley (Justin Bartha) to prove that a purported missing page from Abraham Lincoln assassinator John Wilkes Booth's diary doesn't implicate Ben's great-great grandfather as the mastermind of the murder. Along the way, though, Ben's quest leads him to a legend about a city of gold and a clue buried in the US president's closely-guarded book of national secrets, which he must obtain to clear his ancestor's name.

Directed again by Jon Turteltaub, Book Of Secrets (much like the first National Treasure) is a smooth, lightweight action film for audiences that don't demand high-voltage excitement or nail-biting suspense from their escapist entertainment. Considering how often Ben and his companions spout snarky one-liners in the midst of car chases, it's clear that Book Of Secrets aims for innocuous pleasure rather than a riveting, serious-minded cinematic experience.

Unfortunately, the film strains mightily to be an irreverent good time, relying on tired comedic devices. This problem hampered the original National Treasure as well, particularly in the hokey verbal sparring between Ben and Abigail which meant to show their growing attraction but instead made them sound like extremely juvenile adults. (If these shrill lovebirds weren't enough, the new film reintroduces the gag when Ben's estranged father and mother, played by Jon Voight and Helen Mirren, are reluctantly reunited.)

Thankfully, most of this tedious humour evaporates around the halfway point once the characters get down to the business of uncovering the fabled city of gold. As with many mediocre action films, Book Of Secrets works best when the special effects speak louder than the characters, and the finale does feature a couple nifty bits involving a precariously balanced platform and a quickly-flooding chamber.

Since this sequel never aspires to the level of gritty realism that made the Jason Bourne films or the recent Casino Royale so revelatory, it may seem churlish to complain about the logic problems in the script written by the Wibberleys, who also contributed to the first film. Book Of Secrets sets up several different seemingly-impossible schemes that Ben must execute - including breaking in to both Buckingham Palace and the Oval Office in search of clues, and later kidnapping the US president.

Part of the fun of such films is seeing what ingenious plan the resourceful hero and his team will devise, but the National Treasure franchise has thus far sorely disappointed in this regard. Admittedly, Turteltaub accentuates the absurdity of Ben's success in these difficult missions by playing up the humour, but because the sequences aren't genuinely funny or thrilling enough, they end up feeling lazy and implausible. This joking-around tone becomes even more problematic when the film's conclusion hinges on several life-or-death decisions that are intended to be poignant.

As proof of the first film's financial windfall, Book Of Secrets boasts stronger production values and a more starry supporting cast, including Ed Harris as a mysterious nemesis and Mirren as Ben's distant mother. Harris can be counted on to play a solid bad guy - he and Cage first locked horns in another Bruckheimer production, The Rock - and Mirren manages to make her character (an obsessive, argumentative linguistics expert) both sexy and matronly. If anything, these veterans only demonstrate how little presence Kruger and Bartha possess in their larger roles.

Long since establishing himself as a bankable action star in several Bruckheimer films (Con Air, The Rock), Nicolas Cage continues to be a most unusual big-budget leading man. Lacking the rugged masculinity of an Arnold Schwarzenegger or the wisecracking charisma of a Bruce Willis, he retains the eccentricity that marked his early career in independent-minded art-house films. The few moments of actual acting required of him in Book Of Secrets reveals he still has the chops - he shares some terrific scenes with Bruce Greenwood as the president - but for the most part he's too much of a live wire for such a dull character and for such a blandly competent film.

Production companies/backers
Walt Disney Pictures (US)
Jerry Bruckheimer Films (US)
Junction Entertainment (US)
Saturn Films (US)

Jerry Bruckheimer
Jon Turteltaub

Executive producers
Mike Stenson
Chad Oman
Barry Waldman
Oren Aviv
Charles Segars

The Wibberleys
(story by Gregory Poirier and the Wibberleys & Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio, based on characters created by Jim Kouf and Oren Aviv & Charles Segars)

John Schwartzman
Amir Mokri

Production design
Dominic Watkins

William Goldenberg
David Rennie

Trevor Rabin

Main cast
Nicolas Cage
Jon Voight
Harvey Keitel
Ed Harris
Diane Kruger
Justin Bartha
Bruce Greenwood
Helen Mirren