Producers: Charles Roven, Avi Arad, Alex Gartner and Ari Arad Director: Ruben Fleischer Screenplay: Rafe Lee Judkins, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway Cast: Tom Holland, Mark Wahlberg, Sophia Ali, Tati Gabrielle, Stephen Waddington, Rudy Pankow. Tiernan Jones and Antonio Banderas Distributor: Sony Entertainment/Columbia Pictures
By definition movies made from video games are heavy on action and short of virtually anything else. What makes some more tolerable than others is the likability of the leads and the quality of the special effects. On those admittedly low standards, “Uncharted” succeeds better than most.
The script is based on the Naughty Dog PlayStation game that debuted in 2007 and has been going strong ever since, emitting various media offshoots. The protagonist is Nathan Drake, a treasure hunter searching for places and objects of historical and monetary value. The other main characters are Drake’s comrade/mentor Victor Sullivan, reporter Elena Fisher and fellow hunter Chloe Frazer. In this origins-episode outing penned by Rafe Lee Judkins, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, all but Fisher are included in the plot, with a few new figures added; the scenario is “original,” so to speak—i.e., not directly taken from the games, though the premise is.
Nathan is introduced as a young orphan, played by Tiernan Jones, who’s in the same Catholic facility as his older brother Sam (Rudy Pankow). They’re a troublesome pair, caught one night after they’ve broken into a museum to investigate a map that supposedly offers a clue about the lost treasure of Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who led the first circumnavigation of the earth. Sam, unwilling to be sent to jail, escapes into the night, leaving Nathan to grow up alone in every sense.
Nathan turns into Tom Holland, working as a bartender in a trendy NYC joint (Holland swipes some of Tom Cruise’s “Cocktail” moves) but engaging in pickpocketing on the side. He’s approached by Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg), a more established scalawag, who says he worked with the long-absent Sam in the past and enlists Nathan in a mission to find the Magellan lode using the very map that entranced the boy and his brother so long ago.
With that the movie is off and running, and it’s lucky to have Holland to do the heavy lifting in the action department; Wahlberg, whose Sullivan proves an unreliable ally in any event, gets involved in the fights and chases from time to time, but is more likely to be standing off to the side, scowling as his younger colleague engages in amusingly perilous battles and engaging in mildly snarky banter in the intervening dialogue sequences.
But Holland shows that he can handle the athletics nicely without the benefit of a Spider-Man mask (though with plenty of help from the movie’s army of CGI artisans). He gets plenty of opportunity: the movie opens with a clip from a scene in which he dangles from a chain of unmoored cargo boxes that are themselves dangling from the back of an airborne plane and has to scramble back up as villains try to dislodge him—a sequence repeated at greater length later in the picture—and moves on to a chain of other similarly outlandish action set-pieces.
In one Nathan dangles—again—from a bunch of tubular fixtures as he tries to escape some burly guards at a plush auction house. He’s there because he and Sullivan are trying to purloin a sixteenth-century golden, bejeweled cross that’s one of two “keys” to finding the treasure before it’s purchased by their chief adversary Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas, who would be twirling his moustache if he had one), a ruthless Spanish tycoon who would do anything—even eliminating members of his own family—that might stand in the way of his finding the loot. Moncada also has a fearsome helper in Jo Braddock (Tati Gabrielle), a woman with a penchant for using knives in combat, one of whose beefy aides is a burly Scotsman (Stephen Waddington) with a brogue so thick it’s virtually impenetrable.
The fourth major player is Frazer (Sophia Ali), another treasure-hunter, who happens to possess the second cross and becomes an off-and-on ally and rival in the search. Nathan engages with her in a breathless chase through Barcelona’s tourist sites, a dangerous investigation of the underground chambers of one of the city’s churches, and that flamboyant plane sequence, which also involves a falling car. She’s absent, though, in the over-the-top climax, when Nathan and Sullivan have to face off against Braddock and her minions at the end of the search, a cave where a couple of Magellan’s dilapidated vessels, their holds crammed with gold, are found. Helicopters are also enlisted in an action explosion in which Sullivan’s trustworthiness gets the ultimate test.
Through it all Holland exhibits physical flair as well as the same boyishly ingratiating persona he brings to Peter Parker, but with a hint of darkness added; and though Wahlberg’s smug take on Sullivan can be a mite tedious, he comes through when required. Of the others Ali is fine as the unreliable Frazer, but it’s really Gabrielle who burns up the screen as the smolderingly sexy Braddock.
Holland’s real co-stars, though, are the crafts team, who bring off the big action sequences with panache: kudos to cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, production designer Shepherd Frankel, editors Chris Lebenzon and Richard Pearson, the huge effects team and the army of stuntmen and stuntwomen. Nor should one forget the contribution of director Ruben Fleischer, who fortunately brings his better half to the proceedings: here he’s more in the exuberant mode of his “Zombieland” movies than his deplorable “Venom” ones. Ramin Djawadi’s score, meanwhile, gives a familiar boost to the frantic business.
“Uncharted” is, of course, patent nonsense, and one needn’t bother trying to follow the clues that lead the hunters to their destination; in the games they might be important, but here they’re just obligatory window dressing. But the ridiculousness is made more palatable by Holland’s engaging star turn and the expertise of the effects team, in whose hands the absurdity of the action set-pieces proves more exhilarating than exhausting. It’s no wonder that the makers possess the confidence to add two Marvel style, sequel-promising clips to the end credits; this may in fact be the start of another tent-pole series for Holland.
Incidentally, those who enjoy the movie might seek out Jaume Balagueró’s little-seen “The Vault,” a 2021 heist movie in which a bunch of thieves—including Freddie Highmore—are out to steal the treasure of none other than explorer Sir Francis Drake, who’s supposedly an ancestor of Nathan. It’s on a much smaller scale than “Uncharted,” but contains a few similar elements; and it has some enjoyable moments.