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By Brad Cook | May 24, 2005

I honestly don’t understand all the venom directed toward “National Treasure.” It’s a smart, fun action film that is the kind of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”-esque treasure hunt that “Tomb Raider” should have been. Here’s my sole criterion for judging any movie: Does it accomplish the goals it establishes in the first act? If so, then you have, at the minimum, a solid film. Now, you can of course undercut that solid film with poor acting or lousy editing or bad special effects or whatever, but if the story does its job, you’ve won half the battle.

While “National Treasure” wasn’t a threat to win any Academy Awards, it does provide two hours of popcorn fun. Nicolas Cage stars as Ben Gates, whose family has been obsessed with finding the lost treasure of the Templar Knights ever since his great-whatever grandfather was given a clue to its whereabouts way back in the late 1700s. Once the exposition has been delivered during the opening scene, we join Gates in progress as he moves in on what he thinks is its location, aided by techie genius Riley Poole and treasure hunt financier Ian Howe. It turns out that the lost ship he has uncovered is really just one more clue toward finding the treasure, and Howe double-crosses him once Gates figures out that the next hint is located on the back of the Declaration of Independence.

Gates and Poole barely get away with their lives and head back to the United States, where they decide to go to Washington D.C. and try to convince someone that the Declaration is in danger of being stolen. Abigail Chase, who works in the National Archives and oversees the preservation of historical documents, is not amused by them, but Gates’ shared passion in the early history of our country intrigues her. Meanwhile, Gates decides that he’ll have to steal the Declaration to keep it from getting stolen. That sets in motion a sequence of events that, unsurprisingly, pull Chase into the, er, chase and carry us through the rest of the film.

I’ve read a few reviews that claim the movie suffers from serious plot holes, but I can’t think of any major ones. Yes, it requires a major suspension of disbelief, but in that area it’s no worse than “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which asks us to believe that not only does the Ark really exist, but it possesses supernatural powers. And, of course, Indiana Jones is apparently impervious to bullets, arrows and the effects of hiding on top of a submarine as it makes its way to a secret island. This is the stuff of the old Republic serials from the 30s and 40s, folks, and these kinds of movies simply don’t aspire to more than that. “National Treasure” is a throwback to that era, the same as “Raiders” was. (For the record, I’d give the latter higher marks for better characters and superior acting, as well as the emotional bonus that comes with a movie that I adored as a kid.)

The bonus features on this disc are a great demonstration of where DVD is headed. These days, film studios are essentially software companies when it comes to their home video releases, and the extras included with “National Treasure” offer a peek at what could lie down the road. My understanding is that at least one of the “Harry Potter” DVD releases also includes several puzzles that unlock extra features, although I don’t have any of them. Aside from the “Memento” Special Edition, which requires you to enter the right sequence of symbols just to play the movie, this is the first time I’ve personally seen such an extensive use of puzzles on a disc.

The main special features menu offers up “National Treasure on Location,” a decent making-of featurette that clocks in at just over 11 minutes, which is enough time to hit the highlights of the production process but not enough to get into the history of this project, which is a shame because it actually started as an idea by a Disney executive in the mid-90s and was almost made in 2000 before the studio pulled the plug. Screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott, who provided the draft that was filmed, wound up without screen credit because of the Writers Guild’s arcane rules involving multiple writers on the same project, and their comments were cut from the special features. That’s a shame, because it would have been interesting to hear what they added to the script that pushed it over the edge.

We also have a pair of deleted scenes, “Thomas and the President” and “Extended Shaft Sequence,” both of which were better off on the cutting room floor, although the latter is simply an extended version of a scene in the film. There’s also an animatic for a different version of the opening scene and an alternate ending that I have to confess I like better than the one included in the film. All of this stuff includes introductions by Turteltaub as well as optional director commentary tracks. I understand why he says they re-shot the ending, but I don’t think it was such a bad thing that it came across as if they were setting up a sequel, even if that wasn’t their intention. Good movies like this one certainly don’t suffer from sequels, given their plot-driven serial nature. Hell, I wouldn’t mind writing a draft.

All of the main special features end with pairs of letters imparted by Riley Poole. Once you’ve watched all of them, you’re presented with a device that challenges you to put the letter pairs in the proper order. (Trust me, it’s really, really easy.) Once you’ve unlocked that, you can move on to the bonus treasure hunt, which includes two neat micro-featurettes: the 8.5-minute “Treasure Hunters Revealed,” which offers interviews with real-life treasure hunters; and the five-minute “The Templar Knights,” which relays the basic history of the Templar Knights and the Free Masons but unfortunately doesn’t dig as deep as it could. Too bad Disney didn’t want to throw a second disc in this release and let these featurettes breathe.

I should note that there’s some extra documentary stuff on the official “National Treasure” Web site, which includes even more puzzles. Since that material already exists, and it’s good (and DVDs have apparently come down quite a bit in price, when you look at what they sell for these days), why Disney didn’t simply make this a two-disc Special Edition is beyond me.

This extra menu also includes “Riley Poole’s Decode This!,” a brief look at various secret message encoding strategies through the centuries, interspersed with puzzles you need to solve to move on. Trust me, this stuff is easy-peasy, and at the end you get a four-digit code that unlocks a master code for opening all the bonus features from the main menu, as well as a bonus trivia track that pops up various factoids during the film, a la the text tracks found in Paramount’s “Star Trek” Special Editions. It’s a pretty sparse track, but I suppose it’s worth checking out if you have some free time.

This menu concludes with a pointless 30-second Verizon commercial that ties in with the film as well as instructions for downloading a “National Treasure” cell phone game and cheat codes for those who need help beating it. I guess Verizon ponied up a few bucks toward the making of this DVD; too bad they didn’t offer more so that we could get a fuller set of features.

In the end, I’d give this DVD 4 out of 5, but I have to knock off half a star because I don’t think this release lives up to its possibilities in terms of the depth of the content (there’s certainly enough breadth here). All that bonus material also actually impacts the picture quality, something that home theater aficionados should keep in mind. I wouldn’t be shocked if we see some kind of Special Edition release in the future, a prospect that irritates me since I wish studios would just get their DVDs in order the first time out. See Universal’s upcoming “Jaws 30th Anniversary Edition” for a great example of that.

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