Holy shit. In a movie review, that phrase should ideally be reserved for films that are mind-blowing—or maybe jaw-droppingly horrible, or memorably shocking. Uncharted is none of those things. But the characters in this movie say “holy shit” a lot, more frequently and with less interesting inflection than Jason Lee in a Kevin Smith comedy. They say it about things that should be exciting, like hidden treasure, secret passages or mortal peril, but in a dutiful way that suggests that the actors and screenwriters think that some stock phrases can help them fake a sense of excitement: This is a big-budget action-adventure movie. Those usually have banter. Gotta say something. Holy shit!
It is not particularly easy to like a movie like Uncharted. It is too much like other, better movies, a category that here encompasses masterpieces of the action-adventure genre like Raiders of the Lost Ark; solid entries like National Treasure and The Mummy; and enjoyably lesser efforts, like various sequels to all of those movies. It is, however, easy to want to like a movie like Uncharted—for pretty much the same reasons. Movie stars! Going on daring, ridiculous, globe-trotting adventures! What do you need, a treasure map?
Ask Red Notice, I guess. Uncharted has a certain kinship with that recent Netflix hit, in that both understand movie-star personas (or at least how they’re supposed to work) more than they really understand movies. Here, Tom Holland plays thief and rascal-lite Nathan Drake, who is a bit like Spider-Man without a moral compass—not because that makes much sense for his character, but because Holland got famous playing Spider-Man. Drake is recruited by his missing older brother’s one-time associate Victor “Sully” Sullivan, who is played by Mark Wahlberg and is, as such, vaguely cantankerous and questionably debonair. (Later-period Wahlberg movies have seemingly received the unfortunate mandate that Wahlberg’s characters can and should be worldly men of mystery.) They’re pursuing artifacts that may hold the key to a long-hidden, multibillion-dollar treasure tracked by Nathan’s brother, and are joined by another associate of Sullivan’s, Chloe (Sophia Ali). Because Ali isn’t in a lot of other movies, this one doesn’t seem to know what other characters she’s supposed to be like. Is she a sneaky conniver? Flirtatious, or all business? Sincere, or underwritten?
Actually, everyone in Uncharted is earnest at exactly the wrong times. The filmmakers—adapting a videogame series that has been earmarked as a possible movie franchise for years—seem to know that heroes in adventure movies can be comically unflappable or comically overwhelmed, and find a worst-of-both-worlds solution to reconciling these qualities. They give over screentime to Nathan Drake’s orphaned-twice-over backstory (grew up in an orphanage with his brother, who left to escape punishment for their escapades), then have Drake and Sullivan exchange anti-banter with the mirthless, rhythmless thunk of two people talking past each other. Red Notice had this, too: Dialogue that sounds both redundant and disconnected, where characters speak without wit, clever phrasing or any spin beyond obvious sarcasm, all presented in the cadence of wisecracks that aren’t there. Those are the better lines; the worse ones, like “Sully is a cockroach when it comes to gold,” sound like placeholder drafts. (Based on its frequency, some of the placeholders have been swapped out for “holy shit.”) With multiple scenes where Drake and Sullivan communicate via earpiece, it feels especially like the movie stars are talking into a void.
Some of this manages to be sort of fun anyway. There’s a neat sequence where the obligatory spooky, ancient underground tunnels lead the characters through unexpectedly modern, even tourist-friendly spots. Drake has a funny fight scene using his flair-bartending skills. A climactic chase scene has some of the poor-man’s-Gore-Verbinski action you might hope for from Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer (though, again, none of that movie’s genuine laughs). The bad guys after the same treasure, played by Antonio Banderas and Tati Gabrielle, seem like they’re about to become amusingly over-the-top villains at any moment, but it never happens—in part because almost everyone not played by Holland exits the movie for multiple stretches, as if the principal players were hired to work swing shifts.
Uncharted spends a lot of time scraping up meager points for what it isn’t, rather than what it is. It isn’t a superhero movie, despite the budget. It isn’t CG’d within an inch of its life; there appears to be some location shooting in the mix. Even when it leaves more practical shots behind for cartoonier airborne sequences, they’re not of the endless-falling-debris MCU model. This also isn’t a videogame movie that feels like a beginner’s guide to some stupidly dense mythology larded with big-budget cutscenes.
It is, however, yet another videogame movie that nongamers will correctly receive as a ripoff of the stuff that probably inspired the game in the first place. Uncharted tries to get ahead of that by having characters mention Indiana Jones or Jack Sparrow, a cheap way of consigning better adventure movies to fiction while this one stays workmanlike but unrealistic. Fleischer seems to have faith that if the characters are hunting treasure and keeping things light, an ineffable sense of charm and fun will materialize. Maybe everyone keeps saying “holy shit” because they’re shocked by how little movie has actually shown up.
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Writer: Rafe Judkins, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway
Starring: Tom Holland, Mark Wahlberg, Sophia Ali, Tati Gabrielle, Antonio Banderas
Release Date: February 18, 2022
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.