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Slick action can't hide largely empty riches of 'Treasure'

''National Treasure" is the sort of family-friendly contraption where smart people do a lot of stupid things in the service of entertainment. The minute Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), the lass from the National Archives, snatches back the Declaration of Independence from Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage), the man who purloined it, the dastardly Ian Howe (Sean Bean) and his crew pull up and seize her and the document. So naturally she winds up swinging off the side of a speeding van.

You see, there might be an invisible map on the back of the Declaration that holds the key to lots of ancient booty.

''National Treasure" presents this pursuit and the characters' evasion of the FBI (embodied by Harvey Keitel, who seems to have moseyed over here from his identical assignment in ''Thelma & Louise") as a bruising US history class, taught in Dolby Surround.

Howe was funding Ben's search for the treasure in Antarctica, until a clue suggests it might be necessary to swipe the Declaration, which Ben refuses to do. Luckily, Ian is one of those billionaire Brits who can assemble a crack crew of heist-meisters. So he tries to kill Ben and his geek sidekick Reilly (Justin Bartha, who played the mentally impaired sidekick in ''Gigli") once the expedition takes a felonious turn.

Ben and Reilly survive, though how they get from an ice shelf to Department of Homeland Security offices is anybody's guess. Regardless, they're locked in a race with the Euros to get the document, which is nabbed in the manner of a ''Mission: Impossible" scheme, and the treasure. What follows is a spree of chase sequences, chemical experiments, and trivia-answers that refuses to let you be bored. The movie seems terrified to let a scene sit still long enough for you to relax.

Christopher Plummer has been hired to play Gramps to the boy who'll grow up to be Ben. In the opening minutes, his job is to fill the child's head with the history of all these valuable artifacts and the history of the Freemasons (which really is the history of their family), but nowhere does any of this mention a ''her," suggesting that when the movie says history, it means it.

Anyway, Plummer talks and talks, asking you to surf this tidal wave of exposition (Andrew Jackson! King Solomon's tomb! Ben Franklin!), but it's so hard to keep up that you might never be happier to see Jon Voight interrupt with his curmudgeon shtick. He plays Ben's sensibly skeptical father, who thinks the six generations of Gateses who've hunted this prize have wasted their time.

It goes without saying that Ben, too, will be pulled into the adventure, which takes us up and down the northeastern seaboard. The movie, meanwhile, can't be bothered to try and seduce us into following it. We're clubbed over the head and dragged along. The budding romance between Ben and Abigail seems at first like a good hook, but it's a ruse to take us from plot point to plot point.

The movie does have its pleasures, like Cage's enthusiasm or having Kruger spend a few scenes in a black ball gown. (She appears much prettier when the picture doesn't hinge on her beauty the way ''Troy" did.) It's also nice to watch a movie that makes one curious about national history, no matter how otherwise illogical that movie is.

The director, John Turteltaub, is the undistinguished Hollywood moviemaker who's spent a decade assembling claptrap (''3 Ninjas," ''Instinct," ''Phenomenon," etc.) for various Disney imprints. ''National Treasure," which was written by Jim Kouf, Cormac Wibberley, and Marianne Wibberley, is fun in an airless, guessable way.

But the movie is never greater than or equal to films that occurred to me as I watched it. There's the faintest whiff of ''To Catch a Thief" and ''North By Northwest." And once Voight gets in on the action, the third ''Indiana Jones" seems much more appealing. So does ''The Goonies," after everybody nears the map's ''X."

''National Treasure" even has a rough time approaching the heart of ''The Amazing Race," a show that manages, in 44 minutes, to make you care about average folks as they follow clues across the globe. You're always convinced, watching them strive, bicker, and surprise each other, that winning is so much more meaningful than a prize. There's nothing like that to root for here. You're just left hoping the characters use their spoils responsibly, which should include paying only a matinee price for a ticket to their own movie.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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