Video game adaptations get a bad rap but the reality is that several of them are worth checking out. Where does Uncharted fall?
While enthusiasts of the game might find the adaptation of the game series on point, for audiences going in cold, it’s likely that the new Tom Holland & Mark Wahlberg film will merely play (heh) like a mash-up of better, more inspired adventure films.
Obvious pre-cursors include Indiana Jones (which gets name dropped), National Treasure, The Mummy, and Lara Croft (itself a video game adaptation). The reality is that Uncharted‘s tale of thieves who form an uneasy alliance to discover lost gold feels too heavily indebted to its action predecessors. One wishes the new film were doing something a little more fresh.
On paper Uncharted makes perfect sense: Holland as the plucky, incredibly fit Nathan Drake who is recruited for an shady mission by Wahlberg’s Sully. Throw in a dash of sexual tension with Sophia Ali’s Chloe Frazer and zest with conflict from a pair of not so nefarious baddies played by Antonio Banderas and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s Tati Gabrielle. Finally, alternate sprinkling in jumping/aerial stunt work with Holland taking his shirt off (or at least get soaking wet) every twenty minutes or so. Sit back and wait for the money to roll in.
Alas, the $120M film is missing one key ingredient: fun.
Screenwriters Rafe Lee Judkins, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway attempt to ground the film emotionally with a backstory about Nathan and his absent older brother Sam (Rudy Pankow). The orphans were separated as teens and Nathan’s desire to be reunited is the rationale for his willingness to embark so cavalierly on a dangerous mission.
Alas the idolization of Sam feels rote and shallow. So, too, does the mentorship between Sully and Nathan, which happens far too quickly and in unconvincing fashion (Wahlberg, in particular, stands out as a poor casting choice: he has neither the charm nor the comedic chops to banter with Holland and his line delivery frequently falls flat).
Following an exciting(ish?) heist to retrieve a golden cross up for auction in New York, the action moves to Barcelona where Chloe, the third member of the crew is introduced. While the ensuing parkour foot chase is mildly diverting, the fact that this (and every other set piece, most of them in very public places) draws zero attention from bystanders or police is a mildly annoying issue that the film never bothers to address.
The three criminals proceed to form an uneasy alliance wherein no one trusts anyone, but they nevertheless agree to work together to decipher a series of clues and find the gold. Unfortunately every character relationship is undermined by at least one double (if not triple) cross, all of which are clearly telegraphed and become increasingly exhausting as the film goes on. The “no one trusts anyone” angle doesn’t make for compelling conflict, especially when it occurs approximately every ten minutes. Once is a betrayal; by the fifth time, it’s hard to summon enough energy to care.*
*This also applies to the film’s tendency to treat the audience like morons: not only does Uncharted rely on the tired trope of opening the film with an in-media-res action scene to generate interest (it takes more than an hour to catch back up), but Sam repeatedly reads in voice-over the text of his one-sentence postcards, which are written and displayed in gigantic font. We can read, movie!
Suspension of disbelief is paramount to enjoying any of the action in Uncharted, up to and including the aforementioned opening, which sees Nathan leaping across tethered crates spilling out of the back of an airplane in mid-flight. A lot of the stunts are on-par with the physics-defying ridiculousness of later Fast and Furious films, though in Uncharted the success rate is only ~50%. The crate sequence is a palm-sweating good time until Holland gets beaned by a car and shakes it off while free-falling to earth; ditto the climactic sequence involving helicopters and antique pirate ships that starts off amusing and then overstays its welcome by a lot.
Performance-wise, Holland is fit as hell and game for anything, but Nathan’s vocal expressions and mannerisms too often evoke Peter Parker and comparisons to Spiderman. Holland’s banter with Wahlberg ranges from fine (at best) to painful (at worst), which basically describes Wahlberg’s overall contribution to the film. The women, meanwhile, are underwritten and exist primarily to look great and betray the men. Even Banderas, who is normally so reliable, feels neutered and lacks energy; he’s under utilized and even when he’s on screen, Uncharted never quite figures out what to do with him.
Therein lies Uncharted’s biggest issue: everything is about halfway successful. For every great stunt, decent joke or fun beat, there’s an accompanying disappointment, groaner or eye-roll. At nearly two hours, the film feels bloated and drawn out, particularly the plot points that are telegraphed early, then take ages to pay off. When every other moment misses, that’s a lot of time when the film isn’t working.
As a franchise starter, Uncharted has promise, but the paint-by-numbers script and extravagant budget makes the sequel (teased in the closing credits – naturally) a long shot.
As a standalone, this is a perfunctory action film that consists of shallow characters who exist to move between decent set-pieces. It’s fine…but it could be much better. 3/5
Uncharted opens in theatres Feb 18