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Uncharted Review: Boys To Men

Uncharted Review: Boys To Men

Tom Holland is a busy man these days. He wrapped his newest film “Uncharted,” an adaptation of the popular video game series, a scant few days before beginning work on “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” the biggest film of the last year. In interviews, he spoke about how difficult it was to shake off the “swagger” of his new character, Nathan Drake, when returning to the awkward shoes of the friendly neighborhood Peter Parker, suggesting, to the contrary of most viewers’ assumptions, that he has more range than playing boyish, clumsy, but lovable protagonists. The mere suggestion of his work on “Uncharted” being that much of a change of pace from the role that made him a household name implied we might be about to witness a new gear for Holland, a new set of tricks. But anyone hoping for a drastic divergence from the screen persona he just can’t seem to shake should temper their expectations. When one finds themselves tired of “vanilla,” “French vanilla” only goes so far.

An adaptation of the “Uncharted” games has been in development hell for the last 15 years, with an endless list of writers and directors swapping in and out trying to find the right angle on Nathan Drake and his exploits as a ragtag fortune hunter. This probably has to do with the fact that the source material is itself a playful pastiche on a variety of adventure movies, so porting that set of ideas back to the medium that spawned it is difficult without devolving into open thievery of other, better flicks. It’s been fretted over long enough for Mark Wahlberg to age out of playing Drake himself, but not so long that he’s truly old enough for his current role as Drake’s mentor Sully. 

Enter Holland as a younger take on the hero, in an origin story of sorts that sees him under the wing of a grizzled veteran he has two hours worth of awkward banter with. If that sounds too much like Peter Parker and Tony Stark, that’s an unfortunate truth, because Holland, Wahlberg, director Ruben Fleischer, and everyone else involved sure tried their damnedest to make “Uncharted” its own self-sustaining vehicle. But over a decade of rewrites and a big budget funding brash action set pieces isn’t enough to shake the sense that you’re watching an AU where Spider-Man is trapped in the Holodeck acting out Indiana Jones cosplay.

Another origin story

“Uncharted” is another one in a long line of comic book and video game adaptations where healthy knowledge of the source material is only necessary to understand Easter eggs, as the core story itself feels like a whole cloth creation grafted to the general iconography of what it’s based upon. Holland stars as Nathan Drake, but rather than the gruff-looking everyman with a storied career as a fortune hunter, he’s a baby-faced youth grifting rich marks out of their valuables while moonlighting as a bartender. Then he meets Wahlberg’s Sully and gets whisked away on a journey to find Magellan’s long-lost ships and all the gold allegedly inside them. It’s a simple setup designed to do what so much modern exploitation of IP has done before it: tell a story that teases thirsty viewers for the one they actually paid for.

On the surface, there’s nothing inherently wrong with making a glorified “Uncharted” prequel, de-aging the principal characters and showing the foundational journal Nathan Drake embarked upon to become the beloved figure he is in all the games that inspired this film. But there’s something to the shoddy construction of the film’s script, its bargain bin dialogue with faux-charming banter and the general sense that none of this matters. That’s because it all feels like little more than setup for a franchise that may or may not happen. 

It may feel unfair to criticize this movie for simply following in the footsteps of most movies nowadays, but the original blockbuster boom happened because there were big spectacle films that enticed audiences so much they wanted more, and studios went out and made more. There is a difference between going out to eat a full meal so good it warrants a second helping and being served small plates designed to make you hungry enough for a main course that may never come. Films like “Uncharted” that stitch together enough touchstones from the IP they’re based upon to market what amounts to little more than vaporware to fans feel like feature-length teasers, and the more the marketplace becomes dominated by them, the harder it is to muster up the gumption to care.

The superhero movie boom has made the “origin story” paradigm too attractive to avoid. So much so that in lieu of engaging stakes and resonant emotional beats, moviegoers who pay for a ticket to “Uncharted” can look forward to things like Nathan Drake putting on his signature gun holster for the first time, or tongue-in-cheek jokes about Wahlberg finally growing Sully’s iconic mustache. It renders all the efforts of the story that precedes these cheap pops meaningless, because we all know the story exists as a framework to deliver these moments, and little else.

Haven't we seen this already?

Before getting even more negative about this admittedly watchable, admittedly tolerable example of what passes for a motion picture these days, it would be impolite not to at least highlight the few positives “Uncharted” offers.

Firstly, for a director who has failed upwards as often as “Zombieland” helmer Ruben Fleischer has, it’s genuinely thrilling to see the energy and excitement he and his team put into the film’s set pieces. The airborne climax of the film, split between a gripping introductory scene and its actual chronological placement in the narrative, makes up for what it lacks in grit and texture with a truly inspired sense of joy. At its best, “Uncharted” calls to mind Gore Verbinski’s work on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy, tapping into a raw, swashbuckling sense of adventure. 

The supporting cast is also pretty lovely. It’s always fun to see Antonio Banderas exert an unnecessary amount of thespian effort when playing sociopathic villains in action films, dating all the way back to his underrated work in “Assassins.” But here he delivers a taciturn performance as a tortured, rich megalomaniac that feels like it’s from an experimental character study and not a video game movie. Ditto Tati Gabrielle, doing a sterling impression of Ruth Negga as the film’s heavy, Jo Braddock, and Sophia Ali as popular Drake foil Chloe Sullivan, who both make the most of their meager roles.

And in terms of the film’s praises to be sung, Ramin Djawadi delivers a pretty strong original score. 

But at the top of the card, the two headliners just don’t feel like the right fits for this feature. Wahlberg is already an actor with a pretty limited range, and in throwaway action flicks, he has a higher batting average when he’s playing off of the right scene partner (Denzel Washington in “2 Guns,” Lou Diamond Philips in “The Big Hit.”) Thrust into the obligatory “Mr. Stark” role as young Drake’s conflicted and untrustworthy mentor, Wahlberg’s presence would probably wring more drama and interest if his chemistry with Holland didn’t feel so fake and cutesy. It’s the focal point of the biggest thing holding the film back, and that’s Holland’s casting.

His physicality is definitely welcome, as the parkour/wall crawling agility his dancer’s background has blessed him with gives his fight scenes an Errol Flynn-esque flair. But it only serves to further highlight the strange Spider-Man-ification of an otherwise completely unrelated property simply by virtue of sharing a leading man who is unable to do more than one distinct thing onscreen.

Is it any different than the ’80s when every spec script would have to be retrofitted to contort around Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bulging frames and super narrow ranges? Well, no. Not really. So long as you’re comfortable with accepting that the mainstream marketplace’s best box office draw is a sweethearted kid who always looks like he really misses his dad, Holland showing up as Spider-Man in more Spider-Man movies and even other non-Spider-man related films should be cause for celebration.

At this rate, it might be all Sony has left in the tank.

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