A committed Tom Holland makes this by-the-numbers archaeology-meets-swashbuckling game-to-film adaptation watchable enough.
February 17, 2022
Some movies sport monikers so out of sync with their contents that someone really should've had a rethink before they reached screens. Uncharted is one of them, but it was never going to switch its name. The action-adventure flick comes to cinemas following a decade and a half of trying, after the first Uncharted video game reached consoles in 2007 and the journey to turning it into a movie began the year after. Accordingly, this Tom Holland (Spider-Man: No Way Home)- and Mark Wahlberg (Joe Bell)-starring film was fated to keep its franchise's title, which references its globe-trotting, treasure hunting, dark passageway-crawling, dusty map-coveting storyline. But unexplored, unfamiliar and undiscovered, this terrain definitely isn't — as four Indiana Jones films to-date, two National Treasure flicks, three Tomb Raider movies, 80s duo Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile, and theme park ride-to-screen adaptation Jungle Cruise have already demonstrated.
Uncharted mightn't live up to its label, but it is something perhaps unanticipated given its lengthy production history — a past that's seen six other filmmakers set to direct it before the Zombieland movies' Ruben Fleischer actually did the honours, plenty of screenwriters come and go, and Wahlberg once floated to play the saga's hero Nathan Drake rather than the mentor role of Victor Sullivan he has now. That surprise? Uncharted is fine enough, which might be the best likely possible outcome that anyone involved could've hoped for. It's almost ridiculously generic, and it sails in the Pirates of the Caribbean flicks' slipstream as well, while also cribbing from The Mummy, Jumanji and even the Ocean's films. Indeed, it borrows from other movies as liberally as most of its characters pilfer in their daily lives, even nodding towards all things Fast and Furious. It's no worse than the most generic of its predecessors, though — which isn't the same as striking big-screen gold, but is still passable.
The reasons that Uncharted just hits the barest of marks it needs to are simple and straightforward: it benefits from Holland's charms, its climax is a glorious action-film spectacle, and it doesn't ever attempt to be anything it's not (although reading a statement of intent into the latter would be being too generous). It also zips through its 116-minute running time, knowing that lingering too long in any one spot wouldn't serve it well — and it's as good as it was going to be given the evident lack of effort to be something more. While you can't make a great movie out of these very minor wins, they're all still noticeable pointers in an okay-enough direction. Getting audiences puzzling along with it, delivering narrative surprises even to viewers wholly unfamiliar with the games, asking Wahlberg to do anything more than his familiar tough-guy schtick, making the most of the bulk of its setpieces, providing the product of more than just-competent direction: alas, none of these turn out.
In a film that acts as a prequel to its button-mashing counterparts, Holland plays Drake as a 20-something with brother issues, a vast knowledge of cocktail histories that's handy for his bartending gig, an obsession with 16th-century Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan and the gold he might've hidden, and very light fingers. Nate's elder sibling dipped out of his life after the pair were caught trying to steal a Magellan map as orphanage-dwelling kids, in fact, which Sully uses to his advantage when he first crosses his path in a New York bar — and, after some convincing, Nate has soon signed up to finish the quest he's been dreaming about since childhood. Naturally, this newly formed duo aren't the only ones on the Magellan treasure's trail. The wealthy Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas, The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard) is descended from the explorer's original financiers and boasts a hefty sense of entitlement, while knife-wielding mercenary Jo Braddock (Tati Gabrielle, You) and enterprising fortune-hunter Chloe Frazer (Sophia Ali, India Sweets and Spices) are each chasing a windfall.
It's telling — and farcically blatant — that Uncharted begins with Nate hanging upside down. He's suspended from a train of freight trailing out of a plane, but the visual message is instant and obvious: yes, Holland also plays Spider-Man. Actually, the film doesn't ever ask him to stretch his talents beyond everything he's already immensely famous for, going for a 'Peter Parker, but make him a thief with a heart of gold' setup. Still, he's as entertaining and charismatic as the part demands, and lifts the routine script by The Wheel of Time's Rafe Lee Judkins and Men in Black: International duo Art Marcum and Matt Holloway purely by his presence. Holland hasn't had a great time of late beyond the Marvel web, with the also long-troubled Chaos Walking proving flat-out awful, and Cherry failing to set streaming alight; however, if Uncharted leaves a lasting imprint, it's wondering how much better its star could fare with if he had more than a by-the-numbers screenplay to work with.
A worthy lead, underperforming material, a general unwillingness to take any risks: that's a problem that's plagued too many movies about too many connect-the-dots treasure hunts well before now. Thankfully, Uncharted's eagerness to just get on with its story helps significantly — breezing by rather than loitering on its chest of illogical twists and turns, and, Wahlberg aside, never giving its one-note supporting characters too much of the spotlight. Also, when that aforementioned eye-catching finale arrives and puts the whole archaeology-meets-swashbuckling idea to nice use, the picture almost justifies its existence. X doesn't ever quite mark the spot with Uncharted, and the history of bringing video games to the movies still sinks more often than it swims, but there's just enough that gleams here to be watchable. It's a film with a few shiny coins in its bag, rather than a whole bar, cavern or ship of riches.