As video games have seen massive increases in budget, and thus graphical ability, they have become as cinematic as most movies. And one could argue that Naughty Dog’s adventure franchise, Uncharted, is the most cinematic of all. So why was it so hard to adapt it for the big screen? Literally, this adaptation has been in the works so long that we’ve lived to see Mark Wahlberg go from being cast as young treasure seeker Nathan Drake to instead playing his much-older mentor, Victor “Sully” Sullivan. After the long wait and loads of production woes, the final version of Uncharted hits on many of the swashbuckling thrills provided by the game, but not much else.
The long delay might’ve been for the better, as it allowed Tom Holland to take over as Nathan Drake. And who doesn’t love Tom Holland, seriously? Nathan is something of a scamp; a petty criminal with quick hands and a bartender prone to winning over patrons with extensive history lessons. The kid knows his stuff, and that puts him on the radar of Sully, who recruits him for a dangerous mission to find Magellan’s lost treasure. Why Nathan? Because the quest once involved Nathan’s long-lost older brother, Sam, the siblings descended from the great explorer Sir Francis Drake.
Of course, there are villains also seeking this lost pirate booty. Antonio Banderas once again plays an evil rich dude (think his Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard role), Moncada, who hopes to restore his family legacy. Sabrina badass Tati Gabrielle plays his murderous heavy, Braddock, who might know something about Sam’s fate. This is one of those films where nobody can trust anybody, and so we also have franchise regular Chloe Frazer, played by Sophia Ali, who never met a double-cross she didn’t like.
Although more than half a dozen directors tried their hand at Uncharted, it was Venom filmmaker Ruben Fleischer who ended up with the gig. His job should be pretty easy given the likable cast and game’s obvious Hollywood influences. The film actually begins by teasing its most impressive setpiece, with Nathan dangling thousands of feet in the air attached to loose cargo hanging from a plane. It’s an impressive sequence when seen in full, with Holland showing an impressively believable physicality and agility, no surprise given his Spider-Man roots. He fights with the speed of a cat, swinging from the ceiling and flipping over tables; he even swings a pirate sword and fires cannonballs like a champ. It’s a fun role, and Fleischer shoots Holland like a star. It’s funny, though, how much this is still a Mark Wahlberg vehicle. While Holland gets the bulk of the attention, the coolest lines and moments belong to Wahlberg, almost like he’s still the star when he’s obviously not.
Wahlberg’s influence extends to the relationship between Sully and Nathan. Let’s be honest, Wahlberg plays exactly one type of character and when he’s in a two-hander like this, it’s especially true. So it’s unsurprising that the back and forth between Sully and Nathan sounds a lot like the banter in 2 Guns, or The Other Guys, or Spenser Confidential. On the other side, Holland’s version of Nathan is basically him doing Peter Parker. Gone is Nathan’s trademark grit and steeliness, which might irk die-hards, but this is more in Holland’s wheelhouse. Also very good is Tati Gabrielle, whose Braddock is devious, cunning, and more than just a hired goon. She’s got screen presence to spare and I hope to see her in bigger roles in other films of this scale.
Drawing inspiration from a couple of the Uncharted games, the story is pretty straight forward. The games are basically Tomb Raider with a dude; lots of puzzles and riddles and far too much exposition, like someone watched The Da Vinci Code once too often when they should’ve paid more attention to National Treasure. Between the action scenes, Uncharted gets bogged down by dialogue that sounds like a Wikipedia entry, while at the same time failing to sell us on the partnership between Nathan and Sully. Neither character is fleshed out with enough detail, and that goes double for their supporting cast. They want us to buy into the “thieves’ romance” between Nathan and Chloe, but there’s no steam behind it. Maybe in later movies.
Uncharted really earns its money in the gigantic final act that finds Nathan and Sully fighting aboard treasure-filled pirate vessels swinging from soaring helicopters. It’s a breathtaking, eye-popping finale worth the price of admission, and it makes you wonder what future sequels will do to top it. With Holland and Wahlberg aboard, the plan is clearly to build a franchise that can rival the video games. While the film doesn’t hit on all cylinders the way playing Uncharted at home on your console does, daring, high adventure is a rare find on the big screen nowadays so best to sit back and enjoy it.
Uncharted opens in theaters on February 18th.