Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg play treasure hunters on a journey to find a lost fleet of Spanish gold in Uncharted, a new adaptation of the popular video game franchise exclusive to Sony Playstation. Uncharted is breezy lightweight fun for a good hour, mixing Indiana Jones-style adventure and Ocean’s 11-like heists, but sags after a lengthy midsection in Barcelona and never quite recovers.
Holland is Nathan Drake, protagonist of the Uncharted video game franchise and an orphan whose older brother abandoned him in search of treasure when he was ten. Fifteen years later, Drake is a petty thief and Boston bartender who can mix a mean Negroni; Holland’s moves here challenge Tom Cruise in Cocktail.
Wahlberg is Victor ‘Sully’ Sullivan, the older mentor who approaches Drake with an offer of scoring billions of dollars in 16th-century gold hidden by the crew of explorer Ferdinand Magellan. That’s a quick pass for Nathan, who has no such need for material wealth, but Sully sweetens the pot: he was previously working with Drake’s long-lost brother, who just might be waiting by the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Before we (or Nathan) can question the logistics of Uncharted’s treasure-hunting operation, Drake and Sully are pulling off a heist at a haughty Boston auction, swiping a jeweled cross-key that once belonged to the illustrious Moncada family before a put-upon heir (a devilish Antonio Banderas) can buy it back.
And they’re almost immediately in Barcelona, where they meet the holder of a matching key that should lead them to the riches in the city’s underground crypts… which are also, now, trendy nightclubs. Chloe (Sophia Ali) has the other key but isn’t too keen on cooperating with our heroes, leading to a fun chase across the city’s tiled rooftops.
Like a nuclear submarine, Magellan’s fleet operated on the two-man rule, which complicates matters for these distrustful modern treasure hunters. You think that, since they know the location, they can just blow it open, but those keys get turned in every combination imaginable by Uncharted’s finale on the islands off Indonesia.
Nathan, the hero of the Uncharted series, is a good kid, but all these other characters are notorious double-crossers. Wahlberg’s Sully is a Han Solo-like lovable rogue with a warm heart under that bitter exterior, but you might sour on Ali’s heroine by the time she stabs the poor kid in the back for the third or fourth time.
And then there’s rival treasure hunter Jo Braddock (Tati Gabrielle), who has her own brand of duplicity. She leads a crew of baddies that includes a brute with an unintelligible Scottish brogue (Steven Waddington); Holland’s clueless rapport with Waddington is one of Uncharted’s comic highlights.
Directed by Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland, Venom) from a script credited to a half-dozen writers including The Wheel of Time showrunner Rafe Judkins, Uncharted is lightweight, fast-paced fun during its first half in Boston and Barcelona. There are first-rate scenes of action and adventure across both cities, mostly accomplished using stunt work and practical effects.
But Uncharted loses story momentum as it sets off for the Pacific, and it takes a stark tonal shift as well. Climactic scenes set mostly in mid-air feature Drake hopping across cargo platforms as they dangle behind a plane, and dueling helicopters carrying full-size Spanish galleons underneath them.
They’re supremely silly sequences, and less realistically-rendered than the kind of stuff that went on in Moonfall. That’s completely fine, but these scenes also don’t match the tone of the practical action in the first half of Uncharted, and instead come off like the kind of overblown spectacle that finishes most superhero movies.
Wahlberg and Holland are both enigmatic in the leads, and share some wonderful chemistry; the genuine entertainment value that Uncharted contains is largely thanks to them.
But Uncharted also has a fundamental character issue. While Wahlberg’s rogue has a real (if thin) character arc, Holland’s Drake is a total blank slate who doesn’t even have character motivation. That’s fine in a video game, where we can fill in for a faceless protagonist, but there’s little reason for Drake to even be in this movie other than to be manipulated by the film’s other characters. The carrot of finding his brother is dangled out in front of him early on, but that idea is abandoned fairly quickly.
The money? He couldn’t care less about the gold. It’s apparent by the end of the movie that Drake has no interest in finding Uncharted’s treasure, and ultimately nor do we. That leaves us to slog through about twenty minutes of climactic action with nary a rooting interest.
Despite the climactic missteps, Uncharted is still one of the better video game adaptations to come along, a solid notch above 2018’s similarly-themed Lara Croft. Whether that’s enough to launch Uncharted into a film franchise – as promised by a fun mid-credits sequence featuring Game of Thrones’ Pilou Asbæk – remains to be seen.