It seems like the entire movie-going world is awaiting the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the latest and likely final chapter in the Indiana Jones series. Ironically, Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment is leading up to that movie’s May 22 release with a Blu-ray iteration of Indy’s spiritual successor, the National Treasure movies. Although nobody would ever mistake Nicolas Cage for Harrison Ford, the National Treasure films have the same themes and flair as the classic Indy films, and both are set to release on Blu-ray Disc on May 20. National Treasure 2 is the more intriguing of the two due to its Blu-ray exclusives, and the attention Disney has paid to the Disc, both in its content and production quality, has “blockbuster release” written all over it.
National Treasure 2, which released on DVD late last year, doesn’t stray far from the mold of its predecessor, although the plot and location list do let the actors stretch their legs. In this sequel, Nicolas Cage’s “Ben” character is charged with clearing his family’s name after his distant ancestor is accused of being the mastermind behind the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. This pursuit of “the truth” leads Ben to London, Paris, South Dakota and Washington DC, each leg of the trip also doing double duty as a stop on an elaborate treasure hunt.
Ben’s quest this time requires breaking into Buckingham Palace, stealing the “book of secrets” containing private entries from every U.S. president, kidnapping the current president and, eventually, finding the lost city of gold. Every step of the way, Ben must solve riddles, crack codes and piece together puzzles that are more complex and elaborate than the first National Treasure.
In some respects, National Treasure 2 is no different the James Bond films. In the Bond films, we all know Bond is going to get the girl and save the day, but exactly how he’s going to do it provides the intrigue. Likewise, In National Treasure 2, we know Ben will find the city and save his family (and family name), but how he’ll do it provides the adventure. Unlike the Bond films, however, National Treasure 2 fees occasionally derivative — and the saddest part is that it’s derivative of itself. For instance, when Ben enters the city of gold, he lights the chamber by tossing a torch into an oil gutter that eventually encircles the room in flame. This is ripped straight from the first film, and although one could argue it was a homage to the original, it feels more like plot/set laziness than it does respect.
In spite of this, National Treasure 2 never ceases to entertain, a hallmark of Jerry Bruckheimer films and an odd realization when most of the movie has a “seen this before” vibe. Just as amazing, though, is the attention Disney has lavished on the Blu-ray presentation itself, which is excellent from top to bottom.
It all starts with the 1080p AVC-encoded video, which is among the sharpest, grain-free presentations we’ve seen in months. The contrast and color balance is impressive considering the torch-lit underground scenes, and the only crawl/fuzz to be found appears on solid fields of color such as walls, which don’t appear often. It’s also fortunate that the movie only includes two or three fast action scenes, because the 16-24 Mbps playback rate probably would have faltered if the film had included more.
The Dolby TrueHD audio also shows signs of care, with good volume differential that’s appropriate for the environment at hand (house, courtyard, museum, car, etc.). National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets also makes ample use of the surround-sound channels, and its generous use of environmental audio really helps carry the tension in some of the later scenes.
National Treasure 2 is also packed with bonus features, three of which are exclusive to its Blu-ray Disc release. The first is a feature-length interactive game called Book of History: The Fact and Fiction of National Treasure 2. In essence, this feature inserts an interface on top of the movie with one icon in each corner and a “trivia track” in the top center. At certain and frequent points in the movie, a popup window appears with statements, which viewers must then choose to label “fact” or “fiction” sometime during the next 10 seconds. Once an answer is chosen, the movie indicates whether it was correct — then adds your success or failure to the running tally it maintains for the entire movie.
In between these trivia tests, icons in each of the four corners occasionally glow, indicating players can select it to learn more from the Archives (a collection of historical documents and information tidbits), Chronology (insight into important dates and events from American and world history as they relate to the film), The Desk of the President (a history of the U.S. presidency) and History Makers (biographical information for the historical people who are relevant to each scene). Generally this supplementary information is text alone, but occasionally it includes audio snippets and picture-in-picture video.
The only downside to this extensive BD-exclusive feature is actually a technical error. When this error crops up, the main audio/dialogue track cuts out completely after selecting one of the corner icons at certain points. We experienced this on several occasions, with inaudible primary audio but perfectly normal secondary and environmental sounds. The audio reverted back to “normal” once we manually chose to re-watch the bonus features’ intro movie, but a technical bug like this really should have been caught during production.
The second Blu-ray-exclusive feature is a deleted scene, one of seven deleted scenes on the Disc (six were included on its DVD release). Totaling 20:27 in length and appearing in 1080i, these deleted scenes were cut for various reasons, generally for the sake of brevity but sometimes for plot advancement. For instance, the BD-exclusive scene, called “Pursuit at Rushmore: The Unseen Chapter” (8:03), follows an odd chain of events in which Ben turns himself in to the FBI so the FBI can capture Ben Wilkinson (Ed Harris) and free Ben’s mother. Then, Ben negotiates his release and Wilkinson’s, only to then turn around and fool the FBI to buy himself some more time. This chain of events really doesn’t add anything other than confusion, so the quick scene Director Jon Turteltaub filmed instead was a very nice revision indeed.
The other six deleted scenes, each of which has a great contextual introduction by Turteltaub, include an early-movie sequence that prematurely established Ben’s difficulties with Abigail, an underground scene from the trailer that was inserted here just because it didn’t make the film, an explanation of how Riley hacked into the network at Buckingham Palace, an extended escape scene from the Library of Congress, a funny but short sequence in which Ben’s mom and dad wander the caves looking for the city of gold, and an extended version of the scene in which Ben’s parents are crawling through a tunnel.
The Treasure Reel: Bloopers and Outtakes (5:03, 1080i) is a nice break from most blooper reels, as it doesn’t rely solely on laughter to carry it through. Sure, there are about 90 seconds of laughter, but by and large this feature is comprised of flubbed lines, miscues and prop mishaps.
Secrets of a Sequel (6:51, 1080i), meanwhile, is a series of interviews with the cast and crew in which they discuss the challenges of making the sequel to a blockbuster but also reveal that it’s somewhat easier the second time around to actually pull the actors and sets together when you’ve worked together before. The Book of Secrets: On Location (9:46, 1080i) is a natural extension of this bonus feature, as it talks about the logistical challenges of filming not just in America, where the first film was set, but in locations worldwide where protocols and permitting created their own challenges.
Four additional bonus features cover various aspects of set and prop production. Street Stunts: Creating the London Chase (9:41, 1080i) discusses the planning, prep work and engineering to create the movie’s chase scene, while Underground Action (6:47, 1080i) follows a similar structure in its explanation of how engineers and special effects teams created the city of gold and its balance chamber (a 24-foot square platform balancing on a single pedestal). Cover Story: Crafting the President’s Book (4:32, 1080i) briefly discusses the calligraphy and leather work that went into creating the book of secrets, although no less than three minutes of the feature is spent listening to various members of the cast and crew debate whether such a book actually exists. And Evolution of a Golden City (10:19, 1080i) shows how much work went into creating the city of gold out of Styrofoam and two-by-fours.
The Feature-Length Commentary with Director Jon Turteltaub and Jon Voight seems more like a one-person commentary track with occasional MST3K-like remarks thrown in by Voight. Turteltaub is obviously attached to the film and all its nuances, so his insight into the character/actor dynamics and production obstacles is both copious and enthusiastic. He occasionally serves up “softballs” to Voight hoping for more input, almost as though he senses the commentary feels like a one-man show. Voight pitches in where he can, but it still feels like The Turteltaub Hour. Fortunately, the production insights are deep enough that the commentary feels more like a making-of track than anything else, which makes the Voight-playing-a-mute aspect not all that bad.
The final “official” bonus feature, Knights of the Golden Circle (2:40, 1080i), is a short documentary about the real Knights that outlines their dreams of starting a second Civil War and creating a nation of slave labor. But it’s the third and final Blu-ray exclusive “feature” that really shows where National Treasure 2 can shine — if your home theater has the right equipment.
National Treasure 2, like 20th Century Fox’s Predator, includes support for D-Box Motion Code, which uses a special seat to simulate motion that coincides with certain scenes in a movie. National Treasure 2 includes several scenes that just scream for D-Box Motion Code, including a long sequence on the underground balance chamber and the aforementioned car chase through London. Between the constant rocking of the balance chamber and the high-speed darting of cars through London alleys, we can only imagine how intense and entertaining the D-Box Motion Code must be in National Treasure 2. Unfortunately, imagine is all we can do, as we don’t have the appropriate hardware to review it. If you have a D-Box chair, though, we’re fairly confident this movie will keep you rockin’. Just make sure to look at the setup menu, as the D-Box reference isn’t included with the normal bonus features, as one might expect.
National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets doesn’t push the envelope of moviemaking, nor does it even push the boundaries of its own franchise. But neither did the Indiana Jones films, and look how much movie-goers are looking forward to the next installment in May. It’s a shame that National Treasure 2 will release on Blu-ray so close to the premier of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, because Disney has devoted some serious resources into making this one of Disney’s best Blu-ray Discs yet, and we’d hate to see it go overlooked. The fact that a trailer for The Nightmare Before Christmas on Blu-ray is included on the disc? That’s just icing on an already tasty cake. If you’re looking for one more rollicking adventure before Harrison Ford cracks his bullwhip for the last time, National Treasure 2 on Blu-ray definitely fits that bill.
- Score: 8.6
— Jonas Allen