Confession: I think Nicolas Cage is a great actor. And not just because of Oscar-quality performances like those in Adaptation and Leaving Las Vegas. No, the movie that introduced me to Cage’s gifts was National Treasure. And while Cage did return to the big screen for a sequel, the series deserves to become an even bigger franchise.
The National Treasure movies were made in the wake of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, an immensely popular, thrilling, if not particularly well-written novel about conspiracy theories and mini-art history lessons. National Treasure is the American Da Vinci Code—and also much better than the actual Da Vinci Code movie, which opted for drab humorlessness instead of embracing its inherently silly premise.
National Treasure, on the other hand, is in love with its own silly premise. Basically, Cage follows a trail of clues across historical America, trying to find a treasure the founding fathers hid during the Revolutionary War. He needs to get it before the bad guys, who have more sinister plans than donating it to a museum, do. It’s everything you can want from an action movie: witty, reasonably well-crafted, and starring Nicolas Cage.
The Da Vinci Code celebrates Europe’s Renaissance artists, who were themselves celebrating Classical Roman artists and philosophers. It’s only fitting that National Treasure do something similar: It honored America’s founding fathers, who resurrected the same Classical ideals when establishing the United States. National Treasure is, above all, an ode to American greatness, the endurance of a country founded on the principles of independence and democracy.
It also venerates the intellectual history of the country’s founding. How many $100 million movies perform textual analysis on the Declaration of Independence? How many $100 million movies name-drop Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson like they really mean something? At the same time, the movie’s attitude toward history is irreverent. It looks at insane conspiracy theories and basically says, “you know, maybe they’re right.” It’s in love with its own silliness: Every time a character mentions the Declaration of Independence, they say the words slowly, declaratively, as if the movie keeps trying to impress us with its own premise. At one point, the good guys piece together a cryptic clue from an ancient document by looking at letters hosted at the Franklin Institute. The bad guys figure it out by using an internet search engine.
Nicolas Cage is the only actor capable of making so many absurd situations work with deadpan gravitas. “I’m not gonna let you steal the Declaration of Independence,” Cage tells the movie’s villains, then plans to do it himself. To not believe in Nicolas Cage is to have the Declaration of Independence snatched from right under your nose. To not believe in this movie is to neglect America.
National Treasure: Book of Secrets is equally great. How to top a movie based on conspiracy theories about the founding fathers? A movie based on conspiracy theories about Lincoln, of course. If National Treasure 3 gets made, it will hopefully address Obama’s birth certificate.
Secrets is prefaced with a flashback where Nicolas Cage’s some-greats grandfather just happens to be near Ford’s Theater when Lincoln is assassinated. Later, he’s framed for assisting John Wilkes Booth. In that scene, he inadvertently helps solve a cryptographic puzzle for the Knights of the Golden Circle, a pro-slavery secret society. Apparently, puzzle-solving skills are hereditary. In the present, Cage tries to clear his ancestor’s name, and looks for clues and stuff. The whole thing leads to a search for a second national treasure, a city of gold. That’s right: Apparently, El Dorado is in the continental U.S.
The Book of Secrets itself is a secret journal passed down from president to president, for the eyes of president only. (In the movie, by the way, the current president says he majored in architectural history at Yale, which is not a major offered there.) Cage asks POTUS if he can see the book. “The only way you’ll ever see it is if you’re elected president,” the president says. “You never know,” Cage responds. Yes, please.
This ridiculosity isn’t the only reason I love the National Treasure movies. I also miss the franchise because of what it meant for Nicolas Cage’s career. Once upon a time, a guy who looks like this didn’t just carry a $100 million action movie—he carried a goofy shrine to American history. Now, though, Cage’s face is a punchline on the internet, whether through videos of him resisting bees in The Wicker Man or reciting the alphabet in Vampire’s Kiss. SNL had a running joke about him sleeping with the Declaration of Independence. He is a card against humanity.
Sure, Cage’s weird career has been sort of a joke for decades—but it’s a joke he’s totally in on. Have you actually seen Vampire’s Kiss? It’s hilarious! Cage plays a high-powered literary agent who comes to believe he’s a vampire. The alphabet scene is only the tip of the iceberg—there’s also a great clip of him running through the streets, telling the people of Manhattan, “I’m a vampire! I’m a vampire!”
Clearly, Cage knows what he’s doing. In a recent interview with The Guardian, he addressed his reputation. “The issue with The Wicker Man is there’s a need by some folks in the media to think that we’re not in on the joke. But you don’t go around doing the things that character does—in a bear suit—and not know it’s absurd. It is absurd.” This is a man who knows how to have fun with a movie. Of course a movie about a treasure hidden by the founding fathers is absurd!
Unfortunately, the joke seems as though it’s been lost in translation. Cage’s post-National Treasure movies tend to be forgettable, miserably bad, or both. In the past four years, he’s made five movies with a Rotten Tomatoes score below 20 percent, and his biggest hits since Book of Secrets are the films where he doesn’t even show his face: G-Force (2009), Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012), and The Croods (2013). Critically speaking, he did well in David Gordon Green’s Joe earlier this year, and briefly flickered to life in Kick-Ass (2010). His best role by far in recent years was as a drug-addled, criminal cop in Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, but that was five years ago. It’s a sad fate for an actor who deserves more.
Cage has tried before to recreate his National Treasure-level success. He collaborated with producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Jon Turteltaub again on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in 2010, playing a 3,000-year-old wizard named Balthazar—which sounds like the perfect role. The film should have been like National Treasure with magic; unfortunately, it’s crushingly conventional. The only memorable moment comes when Cage gives advice to Jay Baruchel and waves a pickle with gusto.
Cage obviously doesn’t need a pale imitation of National Treasure like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice—what he needs is more National Treasure! A third movie must exist somewhere, and there’s only one man who can find it: Bruckheimer is reportedly producing a sequel. But after the box office failure of The Lone Ranger, Bruckheimer and Disney (which produced the National Treasure movies) ended their longstanding partnership in 2013. Bruckheimer moved over to Paramount, where he said he’d continue developing National Treasure 3—but there’s been no real news about the movie since.
I’m not the type of person to turn my brain off and enjoy a dumb action movie. I never understood why a movie had to be crushingly stupid to also be fun. And while the National Treasure movies aren’t exactly “smart,” they’re also not a series of poorly plotted scenes punctuated with explosions. The more your brain is on, the more in-jokes about American history there are to get—and the more weird humor there is between the lines of the simple dog-and-cat-and-mouse plot the movie is. It’s a different kind of blockbuster—the kind we should see more of onscreen. Now if you excuse me, I think I just found a clue about the Roanoke Colony.