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‘Uncharted’ explores familiar territory, but Tom Holland is the real treasure

Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg join forces to seek out the greatest treasure of all. No, not friendship. A new blockbuster franchise.

The following review of Uncharted is an edited transcript of the video above.

Uncharted is a new action adventure film from Ruben Fleischer, the director of Zombieland and Venom, with Rafe Lee Judkins (The Wheel of Time) as co-screenwriter. As the name of the film makes clear, it’s a live-action adaption of the popular video game series, which is essentially a modern day Indiana Jones set up, where globetrotters and professional thieves go to extraordinary lengths to find the last, lost secrets of history. To that end, Uncharted is quite faithful to the nooks and crannies of the games, almost to a fault but not quite.

Tom Holland plays Nathan Drake, a vivacious pickpocket who cares more about finding his long-lost brother, Sam, than any supposed fortune. He teams up with the older Sully, played by Mark Wahlberg, who used to work with his brother and offers a chance at finding a mother lode of a treasure Nate’s been dreaming about since he was a kid. Along the way they compete with dastardly villains and uneasy allies, including a slippery fortune hunter named Chloe and played by Sophia Ali, a ruthless billionaire played by Antonio Banderas, and a cutthroat mercenary played by Tati Gabrielle.

Similar to the games, Uncharted spends most of its time and attention trying to get two main things right. First, the set pieces. Uncharted isn’t Uncharted without thrilling blockbuster moments, and one of the obvious challenges of adapting the game is that you’re going from one medium where you can interactively play the set piece and experience the breathless action as the character, to the big screen version of storytelling where you’re just another face in the audience.

Fortunately, the movie mostly gets out of this jam by amping up the danger and ecstasy in each of these ambitious scenes, starting right off the bat with a deliriously fun climb up loose cargo that is hanging from an airplane in danger of crashing. It’s certainly a call back to the second game’s triumphant opening sequence, where you have to scale a train that is falling down a mountain, and then of course the third game’s literal plane crash. So it works here for the film to quite literally set the stakes even higher, and incorporate other characters and physical twists that the game couldn’t really pull off without using a cutscene.

The second thing Uncharted has to get right is the intrigue between characters. An added bonus would be for the mystery and treasure itself to be engaging and surprising, but the film never quite lands that target. But its saving grace is that it does have a competent, visceral hook into the character development of Nathan and Sully, and how their tension naturally progresses into something resembling honor among thieves.

The film’s external and internal conflicts are far from uncharted territory, especially for films in this genre. But it works because these conflicts are executed in purely entertaining ways. So we’ve all seen the chase scene through the streets of a European city, in this case Barcelona, but the added flair of fancy here is Tom Holland’s parkour and how he has to pull off various, implausible stunts within the frame, with only a brief introductory montage toward the beginning to make clear how his training regiment would make him such a spry scaler.

The film does trip over itself one too many times when it halting to call back directly to the video games, with one cameo in particular that is so egregious, I imagine people in the audience who’ve never played the games will assume it’s just an unforced error of a whiff that should’ve been cut out entirely, and they’d be right. Other times, the call backs are far more subtle and gratifying as tributes to the source material, without really distracting fans of the games who would otherwise want to stop watching and pick up the controller, instead.

And that probably comes down to how likable of a performer Holland himself is, where he can pretty much develop his own Nathan Drake whole cloth, less an imitation and more an adaptation of necessity. The hard truth is that he simply doesn’t look much at all like the iconic fortune hunter, but this works in the film’s favor because if he did, then we really would have to consider why a movie should be made at all.

All said, it’s a wonderfully unassuming, unpretentious blockbuster adventure with swashbuckling action, inventive set pieces, emotional character growth, and light-hearted quips that make the whole journey easy to sit through, let alone play through. It works as an Uncharted movie, it works as its own adventurous franchise starter, and it works as just about anything in between, assuming you’re willing to meet this film at its own breezy level.

Uncharted opens in theaters February 18.

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