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CLUES BLUES
PLAUSIBLE PLOT IS ELUSIVE AS BOUNTY IN 'NATIONAL TREASURE'

NATIONAL TREASURE ** 1/2

STARRING: Nicolas Cage, Jon Voight, Harvey Keitel, Diane Kruger, Sean Bean, Justin Bartha and Christopher Plummer

DIRECTOR: Jon Turtletaub

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes

RATING: Rated PG for action violence and some scary images

THE LOWDOWN: In a race against time, a treasure-hunter must unlock a 2,000-year-old mystery via a map hidden on the back of the Declaration of Independence.

"National Treasure" is just the sort of movie that critics hate. It's not bad enough to mercilessly criticize, but not good enough to praise with highfalutin' blather, either. It's tough to convey just how nearly a movie can miss the mark without sounding wishy-washy. But here goes.

"National Treasure" is producer Jerry Bruckheimer's latest no-brainer adventure pic. Nicolas Cage plays Benjamin Franklin Gates, a multitalented treasure hunter with a clue to the location of the treasure smuggled out of Europe by the Knights Templar. Gates has spent years trying to find the treasure, mostly to dispel his family's reputation as a bunch of conspiracy-theory kooks.

Anyone who has read "The DaVinci Code" will be up to speed on the Knights Templar thing, but for those who are not, background is provided though some "CSI"-inspired zooms to historical scenes while Gates' grandfather (Christopher Plummer) inducts young Ben into the family business.

Flash forward 30 years. The adult Gates is crossing the Arctic Circle with his benefactor, Ian Howe (sean Bean), in search of a clue in a Revolutionary War-era ship frozen in the polar ice cap.

Howe is the bad guy. The audience can see this coming from the popcorn stand, but Gates cannot, despite his ability to decipher complex, olde English riddles in 90 seconds flat.

Plot holes and implausibilities are stacked up in this movie like 18-wheelers on the Peace Bridge. But just when you find yourself thinking a bit too long about, say, how Gates and his wisecracking sidegeek, Riley (Justin Bartha), escape that ship after Howe turns it into a giant Toaster Strudel, director Jon Turtletaub whips out some misdirection -- usually in the form of people darting and rolling across traffic-laden highways.

"National Treasure" is all smoke and mirrors, and it's deliciously fun for that very reason.

Pretty soon you get the hang of how this works. When Gates tries to persuade a National Archivist to let him have a look at the Declaration of Independence, and you start wondering how Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) became top dog when she looks to be about 25, suddenly the scene shifts to Gates, doing his best Sydney Bristow to fool people into thinking he is not going to pinch the priceless document. And so it goes, with Gates running from clue to clue, always stop-drop-and-rolling, just a few steps ahead of Howe and his henchmen.

Complicated clues abound in "National Treasure," and while they provide interesting and entertaining glimpses of history, after a while become just plain tedious. By the time Gates gets to the Liberty Bell, you'll wish someone with a handy-dandy notebook would spot some blue paw prints and solve this mystery once and for all.

We get the point that the Founding Fathers wanted to keep the treasure out of the wrong hands. But when did they have time to build subterranean labyrinths? Weren't they busy giving birth to a nation? Hmm. Must be time for another hair-mussing jaunt across an eight-lane highway.

The actors go through their paces in two-dimensional roles with good-natured ease. True, for Cage this film will never be confused with "Leaving Las Vegas," but he has been mailing in performances like this one for years. Voight does a nice turn as Gates' bitter father, who is an annoying, Andy Rooney-type geezer until he gets caught up in the treasure hunt.

Only Kruger truly strains the imagination, mostly because of the accent she adopts every third scene or so. Memo to Gwynnie-wannabes: AcCENT?: No.AcTING?: Yes.

"National Treasure" lacks plot, character development, dialogue, camera work and direction. But boy, is it fun to watch.

e-mail: bsullivan@buffnews.com

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