Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Uncharted goes to familiar territory for treasure hunting movies


As my screening for Uncharted began, I half-expected the Gremlins to break into the projection booth and sabotage the whole thing. This video game adaptation has seen so many delays and existed as a nebulous project for so long, it feels like it was destined to just be a what-if scenario rather than a finished film you could watch. But here it is and now all those postponements are immaterial. What's left is the movie itself. Unfortunately, Uncharted doesn't offer much as a movie, for either good or for ill. Having not played the video games it's based on, I can't tell you if this stacks up as an adaptation, but as a treasure hunting movie, it's only so-so.

Nathan Drake (Tom Holland) is a bartender in Boston, Massachusetts who has a lot of knowledge about ancient history and quick hands that allow him to be a gifted thief. He also harbors a lot of grief over his missing older brother, Sam, whom he hasn't seen in over a decade. A former colleague of Sam's, Sully (Mark Wahlberg), appears out of the blue to ask Drake to help him steal a cross that could lead to a massive undiscovered treasure. Drake agrees to come along for the ride, putting him right in the crosshairs of fellow treasure hunters Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas) and Jo Braddock (Tati Gabrielle).

The best word to describe Uncharted is perfunctory. It delivers what you want out of a basic treasure hunting movie, including people walking around catacombs with torches, exotic foreign locales, and clues hiding in plain sight. Director Ruben Fleischer seems much more comfortable executing a straightforward entry in this genre than he did in overseeing either a gangster movie or whatever Venom was trying to be. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung makes things look perfectly fine visually, with a big skydiving action sequence especially doing good work blending live-action humans with digital backdrops.

Unfortunately, competency will only get you so far. What Uncharted really lacks is a personality or wit. Some of this comes from the fact that the film tries to be primarily a two-hander buddy picture between a pair of mismatched performers. On the one hand, Tom Holland reaffirms why he's a good blockbuster leading man with his turn as Nathan Drake. He's engaging, he delivers the characters vulnerable moments with empathy, and I like how agile he is in the scuffles. Dude's jumping all around, swooping under tables, he has a spry physicality that's nifty to watch. Mark Wahlberg, meanwhile, is miscast as Sully, a character the film wants to be Jack Sparrow meets Long John Silver from Treasure Island. Wahlberg doesn't create much difference between Sully being shifty and Sully being playfully fun, which makes the character's moral ambiguity muddled.

Wahlberg being a poor fit for one of the two lead roles isn't the only problem here. It's also strange that Uncharted eventually breaks away from specific real locations to a generic locale somewhere in the Philippines. There's a lack of specific identity to the third-act backdrops of Uncharted while the nebulous setting and mythology informing this section of the treasure hunt doesn't make any use of Drake's gift for knowing so much about the past. It's hard to bring up historical trivia when your movie is just making up history as it goes along. Without any big character beats to lean on (even a potential romance for Drake gets jettisoned), this critical part of Uncharted becomes hard to get invested in. Plus, the movies heavy homages to Indiana Jones and National Treasure only remind you all the more how fun it was to see familiar landmarks and mythological elements repurposed for treasure hunt antics in those earlier movies.

At least this finale has the good sense to feature a battle between pirate ships in the air, even if I did have to emit a chuckle over imagining Paul W.S. Anderson watching this set piece and thinking "They stole my finale from The Three Musketeers!" As for the rest of the film, it has the good sense not to stretch out its runtime for long (it runs under two hours with credits) and both Banderas and Gabrielle make for entertaining baddie. Unfortunately, they, like the other positive parts of Uncharted, end up reinforcing how uninspired key aspect of the rest of the production are. Ramin Djawadi's forgettable score, for example, or the strained attempts at witty banter between Drake and Sully, they're all evoking other superior movies you could just stay at home and watch instead. 

It's doubtful anyone will be walking out of Uncharted shaking their fists and demanding a refund. However, if you're like me, you won't be able to shake the feeling that this should've been much more fun and imaginative. 

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