Jon Voigt

National Treasure

2004

Walt Disney Pictures

Directed by Jon Turtletaub
Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer
Written by Jim Kouf, Oren Aviv & Charles Segar (story)
Jim Kouf, Cormac Wibberley & Marianne Wibberley (screenplay)

I had heard a lot about NATIONAL TREASURE before I saw it. Friends of mine told me to see it because it reminded them of something that I might write. Roger Ebert just about called it an out-and-out rip off of “The DaVinci Code.”  Other people said it was boring, stupid, trite, a rip-off of this or that movie or character, mostly Indiana Jones or Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt

I saw it for myself and you know what was the most surprising thing to me about the movie was? That this was a Jerry Bruckheimer/Nicolas Cage collaboration that didn’t have any of the qualities that were evident in their other films together such as “Con Air” or “The Rock.” This is an action movie, yes. But when you compare it to what we call action movies today, it’s very modest. There is only one explosion, one car chase, one shootout and only one death and even that is due to the poor dumb bastard who gets killed making a wrong step. NATIONAL TREASURE is a movie that plays as if Cage and Bruckheimer had sat down and said: “let’s do an action movie that’s totally different from the action movies we’ve done before.” and in doing so, they’ve given today’s audience what amounts to an updated version of my beloved pulp adventure serials from the 1930’s/1940’s.

Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicholas Cage) has spent his entire life looking for a treasure that has passed from Emperors to Kings to Pharaohs and finally to The Founding Fathers of The American Government. The treasure has grown to such enormous wealth that supposedly it’s “too large for any one man or nation to own” and The Knights Templars protected it in Europe for hundreds of years until it was moved to America along with The Knights Templar who became The Freemasons. The Freemasons counted among their members such notable Founding Fathers such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Paul Revere and Benjamin Franklin who left clues scattered among the various works they left behind as to where this fabulously immense treasure could be found.

Gates has discovered that the map to where the National Treasure is located is on the back of The Declaration of Independence. What is unfortunate is that he can’t get anybody to believe him, especially The FBI or Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), who is a curator at The National Archives. When Gates tells her about the invisible map that is on the back of The Declaration of Independence and has been there for hundreds of years undetected she asks him quite seriously: “Who wrote it there? Bigfoot?”

Gates doesn’t have much time to try and change the minds of the FBI or Dr. Chase since his former partner Ian Howe has double-crossed him and intends to steal The Declaration and find the treasure. Gates decides that the only thing to do is steal The Declaration of Independence himself with the help of his brilliant tech-savvy sidekick Riley Poole and find the treasure before Ian does.

NATIONAL TREASURE has a lot going for it in the way it handles the characters and the motivations behind what they’re doing. Gates is not a treasure seeker in the conventional sense and indeed, he keeps telling people that he’s a ‘treasure protector’. He’s looking for the National Treasure to vindicate his family name since The Gates Family are looked upon as crackpots by the historical/archeological community for believing that the treasure is real. And he’s got a diverse and interesting background as shown by a scene where the FBI Agent assigned to catch Gates (played by Harvey Keitel) reads Gates’ file. Gates has degrees in a whole bunch of eclectic, eccentric academic fields, which leads Keitel to muse; “I wonder just what this guy wanted to be when he grew up.”  In fact, just seeing Harvey Keitel in a Walt Disney movie is reason enough to watch NATIONAL TREASURE.

And the relationship between Gates and his rival Ian is interesting as well. For once, the bad guy in a movie isn’t a bloodthirsty maniac out to kill everybody in his way. In fact, Ian tries to go out of his way not to kill anybody because as he sensibly explains to one of his gun happy henchmen: “The authorities tend to want to find out why dead bodies have bullets in them and who put them there.” As a matter of fact, NATIONAL TREASURE is one of the few action/adventure movies I’ve seen where the bad guy actually has good reasons for why he doesn’t kill the hero when he has a chance to, especially in a scene near the end where Ian leaves Gates and his sidekicks alive in a secret tomb underneath New York’s Wall Street. It surprised me and that’s not easy for movies nowadays to do.

I liked a lot of the performances here. Nicholas Cage looks more at home playing Benjamin Franklin Gates than any of the other characters in his other action movies he’s done with Bruckheimer and maybe that’s because Gates isn’t an Indiana Jones, despite what you may have read or heard. Gates isn’t a super martial artist or expert gunman or daredevil adventurer. He’s an historian searching for vindication of his family’s dream and he plays it that way. When he’s confronted with bad guys brandishing automatic weapons he runs like his ass is on fire and he only stops to fight when he has no other way out. What makes him dangerous is his brainpower: he sees connections and can make them faster than anybody else and he’s smart enough to know that about himself and use it to his advantage.

Sean Bean is absolutely great as Cage’s rival in the race for the treasure and you get the sense that a lot of the reasons why he doesn’t kill Gates is that he really admires and respects Gates’ knowledge and resourcefulness. Jon Voigt has a lot more to do here as Patrick Henry Gates, the father of Cage’s character than he had to do as Lara Croft’s father in “Tomb Raider” and the relationship they have here in this movie will remind you of Harrison Ford and Sean Connery in “Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade.” Justin Bartha as Riley Poole is one of the best sidekicks I’ve seen in recent moves and he has a wonderful scene where he gets to show that he knows more than Gates that proves just how much that a sidekick can enhance the hero’s character.

Now if you watch NATIONAL TREASURE, don’t expect to see an Indiana Jones type of cliffhanging-thrill a minute-claw-your-date’s-arm-type of movie. It’s more in the nature of a scavenger hunt and the fun comes from seeing Cage’s character and his sidekicks find the clues and piece them together.

Having said all that let me say that I recommend NATIONAL TREASURE wholeheartedly. I had an excellent time with the story and characters and I don’t even think you’ll miss the usual mayhem expected from a Bruckheimer/Cage action movie. Are there holes in the plot holes and flaws? Sure there are. Cage and his crew find a ship that has supposedly been buried in the Arctic ice for hundreds of years far too easily. And would gunpowder burn after being buried under the ice for that long a time? And there’s another scene later on where Cage and his crew just happen to be standing in the exact spot in the tower where The Liberty Bell is kept so that the shadow of the sun is cast at just the right moment so they can find another clue to the treasure. But by that time I had been so captivated by the performances and the sheer audacity of the story’s premise I was just watching and saying to the movie; “what the hell, let’s go.” And I suppose that’s the best way I can tell you to take your viewing of NATIONAL TREASURE: sit back in your seat with your soda, popcorn, candy and say: “what the hell, let’s go!.” We don’t have Saturday Morning Serials anymore but we do have movies like NATIONAL TREASURE to remind us of what they once were.

131 Minutes
Rated PG

Midnight Cowboy

1969

United Artists/MGM

Directed by John Schlesinger

Produced by Jerome Hellman

Screenplay by Waldo Salt

Based on the novel by James Leo Herlihy

I’ve probably said this before so if the next couple of paragraphs sound familiar feel free to drop on down and read the rest of this review, okay?  You won’t hurt my feelings.  One of the reasons I love movies is that I feel by watching them you can get more of a feel of a period of history in terms of fashion, slang, societal and political attitudes than you can from reading a dry text.   Since the movie was made and acted by people who were living those attitudes and dressing in those fashions and using that slang the impact you gain from watching the movie can probably give you a better sense of what people and the world was like during that period.  I watched MIDNIGHT COWBOY one weekend and the main thing that I came away with was that the movie pretty much accurately shows what New York was like in 1969 when it resembled something out of John Carpenter’s “Escape From New York” especially the way 42end Street used to be before it became Disneyfied.  The 42end Street/Times Square  shown in MIDNIGHT COWBOY  is the 42end Street I remember when my buddies and I used to go there on Saturdays to watch three Kung Fu movies for three dollars and the pimps, prostitutes, hustlers, junkies and drug dealers ruled Times Square. I know it’s hard to believe now but back in the 1970’s and 1980’s tourists visiting New York were actually warned to stay out of the Times Square area.

Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is a tall, lanky, good-looking Texan who quits his dead end job at a roadside diner, packs up his stuff in an ugly cowhide suitcase and hops a bus to New York.  He thinks he’ll be a natural in his chosen profession of being a male prostitute since he believes that New York is full of rich old women who will throw handfuls of money at him for sex.  He’s full of confidence and energy and he can’t wait to get to The Big Apple where he dreams of making it big.

His confidence is soon busted into splinters because he soon realizes that he’s simply not smart enough, street savvy enough or tough enough to make it in New York.  His pathetic attempts to pick up women are met with disgust, outrage or gales of laughter at his wildly out-of-place cowboy outfit of huge Stetson hat, fringed leather jacket, sequined shirt and garish boots.  And when he does finally score, the woman he picks up (Sylvia Miles) makes him feel so guilty that he actually ends up paying her for their afternoon of recreational sex.

Joe meets the lowlife street hustler Enrico ‘Ratzo’ Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) who tells Joe that he needs a manager to set him up with high-class women and Ratzo cons Joe out of $20 bucks (remember, this is 1969…$20 was a whole lotta money back then) then leaves him high and dry.  Joe soon runs out of money and is locked out of his hotel room.  Joe is forced to prostitute himself to a gay student (Bob Balaban) where they have sex in a 42end Street movie theatre and the student stiffs Joe on the money he promised him.  Joe can ‘t even bring himself to take the student’s watch as compensation and he’s now at rock bottom, reduced to eating crackers he finds on restaurant tables.

Joe again runs into Ratzo who offers to share his apartment in a condemned building with no heat and no electricity. The two total losers form a bond of friendship as Ratzo teaches Joe how to commit petty crimes in which they steal food and pull off really minor cons that mainly consist of them distracting their marks, grabbing whatever they can and running like hell.  Ratzo’s attempts to become Joe’s pimp gets Joe thrown out of a Park Avenue hotel when he propositions   They have no money, no food and Ratzo contracts pneumonia. Things start to look up when Joe is invited to a drug party and he meets Shirley (Brenda Vaccaro) who actually pays him for sex and indeed, promises to hook him up with some of her friends.  But Ratzo’s health is rapidly deteriorating and after Joe has an encounter with a middle aged homosexual (Barnard Hughes) that turns violent, the two friends decide to leave New York and head to Florida where Ratzo dreams of a better life for both of them.  Let’s just say it doesn’t happen the way the way Ratzo plans.

I don’t mind watching depressing movies about lowlifes, prostitutes, hustlers and degenerates if they’re well made.  But MIDNIGHT COWBOY simply isn’t a well-made movie.  It’s a total mystery to me how this movie won for Best Picture.  There must have been awfully slim pickings that year because outside of Dustin Hoffman’s performance I can’t think of a single reason to recommend that you should see this movie.  I like Jon Voight a lot but his Joe Buck is simply too damn stupid to live and it’s a miracle he survives as long in New York as he does.  And there are these highly confusing hallucinations/flashbacks/dreams that Joe has in which he either A) rapes his girlfriend, B) is falsely accused by his girlfriend of raping her or C) both he and his girlfriend are raped by Joe’s drunken buddies.

Add to that there are even still more flashbacks of Joe’s childhood concerning his grandmother who may or may not have been a prostitute herself and may or may not have sexually molested Joe.  There is one scene where the young Joe is in bed with his grandmother and a man and they’re all plainly naked but you’re never sure if this is something that actually happened to Joe or if he’s dreaming it or what.  It’s unnecessarily confusing and eventually I gave up trying to figure out what was real and what wasn’t.  Add to that the scene where Joe turns violent out of frustration over being stiffed yet again and beats the piss outta the Barnard Hughes character.  The movie doesn’t make it clear if Joe kills the middle-aged homosexual after robbing him.  Ratzo asks him a number of time during their bus ride to Florida if Joe killed the man or not but Joe never gives a clear answer one way or the other.

The supporting actors don’t make any impression at all outside of Brenda Vaccaro who in her day was one of the hottest actresses working.  But here she seems to be acting in another movie altogether here.  Thankfully she gives the movie some much needed energy during the last half hour and Sylvia Miles displays a really remarkable pair of legs early on as Joe’s first pickup.  Dustin Hoffman is the only real reason to see this movie as this has his famous “Hey!  I’m walkin’ HERE!” scene and he captures the despair and hopelessness of Ratzo’s poor sad life perfectly.  And I was driven absolutely apeshit with how many times “Everybody’s Talkin” sung by Harry Nilsson is played.

So should you see MIDNIGHT COWBOY?  Only if you’re interested in it purely to see Dustin Hoffman or to watch it as a cultural artifact of a New York that no longer exists.  Otherwise, it’s a pretty pointless movie and by the time you get to the end and one of the main characters dies you might be like me and breathe a sigh of relief.

Rated R: When MIDNIGHT COWBOY had its original theatrical run it was rated X for subject material, nudity and drug use but since then, the rating has been lowered to R and that’s still laughable.  I find it hard to believe that even back in 1969 this material was considered controversial.  If anything, there is more attention paid to the despair of the life Joe and Ratzo live than to sex or drugs.  There are a couple of sex scenes but they’re so tame there’s nothing erotic or titillating about them.  Maybe that was the whole point and I’m just a sleazy so and so.  Anyway, there’s nothing in MIDNIGHT COWBOY that offended me except the utter naivety and stupidity of the Joe Buck character and I don’t think there’s anything that will offend you except poor movie making at its best.

P.S. MIDNIGHT COWBOY holds the distinction of being the only X rated movie to date to win a Best Picture Academy Award.

113 min.