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X marks the spot

“National Treasure”Walt Disney PicturesDirected by John TurteltaubWritten by Jim Kouf and Cormac Wibberly Starring Nicholas Cage, Diane Kruger, Sean Bean, Harvey Keitel, Justin Bartha and Jon Voight Rated PG/130 minutes Opens in theaters Nov. 19

Three and a half out of five stars

In Hollywood, it always seems that once an idea or proven formula is out there, the studio heads are quick to exploit it as quickly as possible, and shove it down audiences’ throats until it becomes unprofitable.

It happened with the natural disaster titles that followed the success of “Twister” (such as “Dante’s Peak,” “Volcano,” “Armageddon,” “Deep Impact”-do we see any recurring themes here?) and, following “Gladiator’s” Oscar wins, the movie scene has been inundated with Hellenistic epics like “Troy” and “Alexander.”

One can only imagine mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, the king of hit-or-miss action movies, pouring through Dan Brown’s entertaining, brain candy novel, “The Da Vinci Code,” and saying to himself, “My God, I have to Americanize this and make it into a movie!” Funny thing is, it isn’t as bad an idea as it sounds.

“National Treasure” is the result of that “A-ha!” moment. It takes the Masonic conspiracy, coded documents and head-scratching riddles of the international best-seller and converts them into themes more familiar to American audiences.

Oddly enough, this pre-emptive strike on all the intellectuals-chasing-adventure movies works out pretty well.

We meet Benjamin Franklin Gates (played by Nicholas Cage) as a child. His grandfather tells him of an elephantine treasure that was being protected and hidden by the Masons during Revolutionary-era times.

Some of the Founding Fathers were Masons, and they supposedly hid clues to the whereabouts of the ancient stash of goods in many historical places and documents.

Flashing forward 30 years, we find that Ben is now a historian, and has chased the treasure his whole life. Recently, he discovered another piece of the puzzle that points toward a map hidden on the back of the original copy of the Declaration of Independence. Because the copy is heavily guarded at the National Archives, there is only one thing to do: steal it.

“National Treasure’s” plot is a stretch, that’s for damn sure. Even for the most conspiracy-minded among us, the notion that the Masons would want this vast treasure to be protected in some New World British Colony-at-war is confounding at best.

But, this is a Bruckheimer movie, so the audiences are supposed to know that all logic and most of their brain-power should be checked at the door. This is to be pure, unadulterated entertainment.

Joining Ben Gates in his quest for the Holy Grail…er, huge treasure, is the tech-savvy Riley, (Justin Bartha) whose computer wizardry would make him a prime choice for Danny Ocean’s gang, and Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), a beautiful National Archives employee whose knowledge of American historical documents is on par with Ben’s.

Harvey Keitel is the FBI agent they must avoid and Sean Bean is (big surprise here) the villain they must outwit.

Bartha is competent enough as the film’s primary source of humor, but Keitel and Bean are playing roles that are either beneath their skills (as in Keitel’s case) or too typecast (Bean). They just get lost in the shuffle of characters.

Cage seems somewhat restrained, and the couple of times we get to see his wild, manic, outbursts we wish there was more of it. Then again, this movie isn’t about character development as much as it is about a rollicking good time.

One of the movie’s biggest downfalls lies in some of its action sequences. Director John Turteltaub seems to go through all of the motions with a tepid yawn, employing too many blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cuts that flash by so quickly that they create the aura of action rather than palpable, edge-of-your-seat thrills.

Despite its tendency to stick to conventions, “National Treasure” manages to find the X on the map. Its intriguing story line blends history with fiction (who ever thought that knowing who Silence Dogood’s alter-ego is would lead to riches?) and decent performances.

Turteltaub’s paces “National Treasure” well. The movie clocks in at more than two hours, but doesn’t feel like it’s too long.

“National Treasure” is ushering in a new era of Indiana Jones-style pulp adventure, and if it does well at the box-office, expect to see many more movies of this genre to come.

If anything else, it will at least sate the hunger for fans of Dan Brown’s novels until 2006, when Ron Howard will bring “The DaVinci Code” to the big-screen.

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