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‘National Treasure: Book of Secrets’

Treasure protector Benjamin Franklin Gates returns in “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” which opens nationwide today. While the original clicked like a precision-made Chinese puzzle box, this one grinds along on star power, brilliant flashes and some fine adventure sequences.

This time, Gates (Nicolas Cage) is joined not only by techno-gadget hound Riley Poole (Justin Bartha) and now-ex girlfriend Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), but also dad (Jon Voight) and eventually mom (Helen Mirren).

“Secrets” kicks off when a page from John Wilkes Booth’s diary resurfaces. Its owner, Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris), claims the page implicates Thomas Gates (Ben’s great grandfather) in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Ben and dad Patrick immediately disbelieve any such assertion and set off to clear their ancestor’s name.

This being a Jerry Bruckheimer production, they don’t exactly get mired in archival work. Instead, the page puts them on the trail of a Playfair cipher and a treasure tied back to John Wilkes Booth and the Confederacy.

Unlike the original, “Secrets” takes us beyond U.S. borders. Ben and company play in Paris and wreck London before making their way back to America where this treasure allegedly resides.

The form this treasure takes is absent from the film’s marketing, so it would be a shame to blow that here. Let’s just say it’s another national, if mostly unheard of, treasure.

“Secrets” is at its best when director Jon Turteltaub gives us a London car chase, sneaks into Buckingham Palace and the White House for their clues, and puts us underground on a wobbly booby-trap of a platform. It’s at its worst when showcasing the badly drawn villain and letting story holes show through (e.g. Riley knows the Book of Secrets exists, but Gates doesn’t ”impossible in this universe).

Speaking of the Book of Secrets, it’s the president’s book that contains all manner of classified information known only to the president: the truth about Area 51, what was on Nixon’s missing White House tapes, the Kennedy assassination, etc. The filmmakers have planted an opportunity for another “Treasure” installment on page 47 of the book, but so far no one is letting on what that might be.

“Secrets” got the original cast back ”even Harvey Keitel as FBI Agent Sadusky ”and added Helen Mirren and Ed Harris to boot. Mirren’s character is believable enough for this story, but Harris’s Wilkinson is hollow, with unsound motivation ”perhaps the movie’s biggest disappointment.

Despite the sequel’s shortcomings, it’s still eminently watchable ”especially if you loved the first one. Ben still cracks codes, Riley still masters gadgets. Clues are followed, someone still has to go to prison.

The appearance of the President (Bruce Greenwood) in “Secrets” is minor but memorable, mostly because Greenwood just works well on screen in everything he’s in. Perhaps we’ll see more of him in “National Treasure 3,” which will surely be green lit after this one rakes in the cash despite not being as clever as the first.

“Book of Secrets” is a fun movie and worth the admission price. Here’s hoping the creative team can recapture the magic that made the original such a treasure.

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.

MPAA Rating: PG for some violence and action. Reviewer’s Note: At the beginning of the movie, a son sees his father shot and killed.

Director: Jon Turteltaub

Writers: Cormac and Marianne Wibberley

Cast: Ben Gates: Nicholas Cage; Riley Poole: Justin Bartha; Abigail Chase: Diane Kruger; Patrick Gates: Jon Voight; Emily Appleton: Helen Mirren; Mitch Wilkinson: Ed Harris; Sadusky: Harvey Keitel; The President: Bruce Greenwood.