A film review by Craig J. Koban February 28, 2022

UNCHARTED jjj

2022, PG-13, 116 mins.

Tom Holland as Nathan Drake  /  Mark Wahlberg as Victor 'Sully' Sullivan  /  Antonio Banderas as Santiago Moncada  /  Sophia Ali as Chloe Frazer  /  Tati Gabrielle as Braddock  /  Steven Waddington as The Scotsman  /  Pingi Moli as Hugo

Directed by Ruben Fleischer  /  Written by Rafe Judkins, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway

UNCHARTED is a spectacularly dumb archaeological adventure film; at times, it makes the NATIONAL TREASURE films look like INDIANA JONES by direct comparison.  

Having said that, I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I found it to be pretty damn solid as far as logic defying and very silly globetrotting swashbuckler, made all the more watchable because of stars Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg's modest charm and breezy chemistry (despite their odd and polarizing casting, more on that in a bit).  Of course, this Ruben Fleischer (ZOMBIELAND, VENOM) directed effort is based on the widely popular and critically adored PlayStation treasure hunter video game series developed by Naughty Dog that has become a defining standard of excellence for the genre.  I didn't quite come out of the UNCHARTED movie thinking that this was an upper tier, genre boundary pushing effort at all, but as a relative outsider to the games themselves I found it to be enjoyable, but disposable and derivative fun. 

The UNCHARTED games introduced us to Nathan Drake, a makeshift archaeologist that journeys the world over to solve longstanding historical mysteries while uncovering all of the bountiful treasures and riches along the way.  An unavoidable movie adaptation has been in the works for a decade-plus, mostly because of the inherent cinematic nature of the games (more than ever, the art form of and aesthetic of games and movies are intersecting in profound ways).  Fans of UNCHARTED seemed to cried foul with the unusual casting of Spider-Man himself in Tom Holland, who is, to be fair, not a physical dead ringer for the rugged and handsome Drake that has graced the games for years.  Holland is a graceful and winning presence, to be sure, but he certainly looks and feels awfully young to be playing this part, which makes the UNCHARTED movie a bit of a distracting watch in the early stages.  But as the story progressed and Holland's performance evolved and matured along with the narrative he slowly submerged into the role and does what he can to make it uniquely his own.  

Is his stunt casting as controversial as, say, Michael Keaton as Batman all those decades ago?  Hardly, but I can see how his eternally youthful mug here might turn off some of the game's die hards who envisioned a more granite jawed and cynical edged actor for this silver screen interpretation. 

UNCHARTED could have almost been called NATHAN DRAKE BEGINS as it charts his origin story.  The film begins 15 years in the past and introduces us to Nathan as a child hanging out with his antiquities hungry and stealing older brother in Sam, who has to flee from authorities and essentially abandons poor Nathan in an orphanage.  Sam promised to return to his younger sibling some day, but that ended up being a hollow promiseFlashforward to the present and the young twentysomething Nathan (Holland) lives alone and makes ends meet as a bartender in New York.  Oh, he's almost superhumanly book/history smart and is a highly adept pickpocket that thieves his way into some extra cash.  Coming into his bar one night is Victor "Sully" Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg), a treasure hunter (and notorious conman) that reveals to Nathan that he once knew and worked with Sam and now requests Nathan's assistance with locating a gargantuan gold fortune that's tied to Magellan's 1500s expedition.  Initially very distrusting of this stranger, Nathan begrudgingly decides to team up with Sully (based partially on his ties to his long lost brother, but also because of the fame and fortune involved).   

 

 

Sully's end game seems relatively simple: He wants to team up with Nathan's to find an ancient jewel covered cross that - when combined and used with a similar other cross - will allow them to find the location of Magellan's lost treasure.  Complicating things is that the "other" cross is in the possession of one of Sully's former allies in Chloe Frazer (Sophia Ali).  Deciding that it's in all of their best interests to partner up together, Nathan, Sully and Chloe combine their resources and scour locations as far ranging as Barcelona and the Philippines looking for that MacGuffin lost gold...and before a greedy and dangerous millionaire named Santiago (Antonio Banderas) and his lethal henchwoman in Jo Braddock (Tati Gabrielle) can get to it.  All of this leads to some involving, but laughably illogical plot developments, mostly involving Nathan and his crew searching through the catacombs beneath a cathedral in Barcelona that has easily accessible chambers that directly leads to...yes...a modern techno night club and - most incredulously - a Papa Johns pizzeria.  

Yup.  Sure.  Uh huh. 

Again, a lot of what transpires in UNCHARTED plays like INDIANA JONES FOR DUMMIES and kind of coasts by on the overused troupes of past and better treasure hunting adventure films.  More often than not, Fleischer and his screenwriting team seem to be pilfering out of the genre playbook instead of offering up their own brand of innovation for this kind of material.  I think that's one of the main reasons why UNCHARTED is largely tension-free, mostly because I rarely, if ever, felt genuinely worried about the perils that these characters are placed in.  The film also lacks a bit edge as well, and considering some of the hellish acts of violence that goes on it's pretty odd how mostly and frustratingly tame everything is here (a notable throat slash - partially done on and off camera - has got to be the most bloodless throat slash in recent movie history (mostly out of necessity, I guess, to secure a PG-13 rating).  If you look back at, say, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK or, hell, even the TOMB RAIDER reboot of a few years back (still, for my money, one of the best video game adaptations...perhaps ever) you feel the exhilarating levels of stakes and dangers in those films.   In UNCHARTED, not so much.  I can definitely understand why the makers didn't wish to alienate any of the game's aficionados by diverging too far from the cherished source material, but Fleischer seems reticent to push any buttons and take any calculated risks with this adaptation.  If you exclude the polarizing casting, UNCHARTED is fairly safe and pedestrian as far as these kind of films go. 

And, yeah, Holland is not going to be everyone's cup of tea here as Nathan.  Like a Michael J. Fox before him, the British actor is probably doomed with an impossibly clean baby faced mug, which will probably stunt his abilities to push away from his much more famous teenage wallcrawler MCU role in the future.  As a gamer that's not deeply entrenched in the PlayStation ethos and the UNCHARTED games themselves, I found myself appreciating Holland's take here, for the most part, primarily  because he's such an effortlessly agreeable actor that brings ample amounts of authentic sincerity to the role (even amidst all of the cockamamie madness surrounding him).  Wahlberg, like Holland, definitely doesn't look at all like his game counterpart (no moustache on this Sully, folks!), and the actor is certainly going through the breathless Wahlberg-ian motions, but his scenes with Holland are undeniably snappy in a buddy/cop movie kind of way.  Greatly complimenting this duo is the fetching presence of Ali, who commendably holds her own rather well against her much more well known co-stars.  The only performance sour note in UNCHARTED comes from Banderas as the chief baddie.  Actually, he's fine in the film and gives his role understated menace, but this villain seems undercooked and underutilized here to make a sizeable impression. 

UNCHARTED, to its credit, contains some inspired and frankly bonkers action sequences that are rendered with some thanklessly good VFX work.  There's the film's opening bookended sequence that shows Nathan coming out of unconsciousness while being tethered to the outside of a vast cargo plane and then has to get truly crafty with saving his life (the rules of gravity are thrown out the window here, but who cares...this is pretty sensational stuff).  There's also a needs to be seen to be believed air chase sequence late in the film that's absolutely ridiculous, but exciting (let's just say that it involves two military helicopters both carrying two of Magellan's seaweed covered sailing vessels).  Fleischer knows his way around moments like this and understands the necessity to deliver UNCHARTED's large scale set pieces with the required levels of eye popping spectacle.  I think, though, that one of the main problems with video game movies over the years is that those aforementioned moments perhaps work better in game form because of the inherent interactive/you're-in-control facets of gaming.  Movies don't work on the brain in the same psychological manner.  This is why game-to-movie adaptations often feel too cynical minded minded for their own good as mass marketed products trying to cash in on something that works marvelously in other mediums.

There's a haphazard thrown together quality to UNCHARTED that holds it back from achieving something thoroughly special for this much maligned movie genre, but that's not to say that it's not passably entertaining.  The events that transpire here are frequently and eye-rollingly absurd, but not to the point of pushing me away at a frustrated distance.  It checks off the obligatory boxes for glossy big budget video game adaptations without transcending them in any way, but it's far from the most wretched examples out there and is made with considerable polish and features two highly agreeable lead actors that arguably make this material work better than it has any right of working.   And as far as the perpetual “video game movie curse” goes, I don’t subscribe at all to the notion that it hasn't been broken yet.  TOMB RAIDER was superb and the somewhat forgotten WARCRAFT was ambitiously envisioned.  Hell, I even modestly liked SONIC THE HEDGEHOG.  After those entries and with a minor assist from UNCHARTED I feel that we’re in a mini Golden Age for the genre.  

Okay, maybe not gold or even silver, but I'll settle for bronze.   

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