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REVIEW – “Uncharted” – Globetrotting Cutscene Treasure Hunt intended for Fans Only

907632 - UNCHARTED
Mark Wahlberg and Tom Holland star in Columbia Pictures’ UNCHARTED. PHOTO BY: Clay Enos COPYRIGHT: ©2020 CTMG, Inc. All rights reserved.

Upon seeing the first pieces of marketing for Ruben Fleischer’s Uncharted, a much-ballyhooed cinematic interpretation directly based on the bestselling PlayStation game series, my immediate reaction was rather indifferent. I am not a gamer, so I couldn’t necessary see this film through the lens of a modern gamer. Now after stepping out of this anticipated big screen actioner – one which does play best in IMAX, apparently – to lack that added level of perspective lends to further indifference. For what it is, a CG-heavy, stunt-bolstered treasure tale that’s more Cutthroat Island or National Treasure than Indiana Jones, it’s serviceable. And it has its moments, aided by a charismatic ensemble. That may not be enough for the cause, all told.

If nothing else, aside from its tight choreography, and slick camera work by the ever nimble Chung-hoon Chung (Last Night in Soho), what we have here is a blatant showcase of top-bill charm. On one side is Nathan Drake (Tom Holland), cock-eyed New York bartender with a wild history. Orphaned from a young age, his art for grifting was never lost on him when he and older brother Sam were forced to go separate ways. By sheer chance, Nate crosses paths with “antiques specialist” Victor Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg), who teases a jackpot of secret pirates’ gold somewhere in the Philippines, the remnants of Magellan’s expedition. It was a goal Nate had shared with his brother long ago, to retrieve that opulent wealth. Reluctant at first, he assists Victor on a wild goose chase, incorporating what could best be described as a “crucifix key”, ruthless hunter Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas), and multiple layers of burgeoning deception or mistrust.

On just about every direction does Fleischer (Zombieland: Double Tap) and screenwriters Rafe Judkins (The Wheel of Time), & Art Marcum and Matt Holloway (Men in Black: International) inadvertently lose the viewer on whatever point being made. Front of the line is that preeminent idea of levelling up based on manipulative deceit, lending to Banderas’ otherwise captive baddie role rather muted against co-existent threats like Sully’s on-off friend Chloe (Sophia Ali) or Moncada’s second in command Jo (Tati Gabrielle). Ali does carry more substantial pluck against Gabrielle, solely by playing sparring partner versus Sully’s own chicanery. For Wahlberg, the guise of garden snake trickster emerges with ease. His very presence with the typecast-fighting Holland equals a candid, jovial friendship, at spots fun to watch, other moments questionable, with energy and oxygen slowly being siphoned away. We just don’t realize that too quickly in that it becomes its own effortless ruse. Holland fares stronger opposed to his elder colleague, who’d been attached to Sully since the beginning of Sony’s lengthy gestation period. And the waiting shows, as Holland outshines on exceeding physicality, and mind-blowing parkour. Wahlberg’s skill may not hold a candle, regrettably.

Fleischer works well above and beyond his comfort zone to both maintain his directorial flair and keep his cast in line. Aware of how precious (and sappy) the source material is, it was impossible not to lean so hard on its edges. Their high-octane shenanigans proved engaging, exciting, but also unavoidably bland. Even a mid-air cargo ship fight scene that had been the prime focus in marketing couldn’t fully rouse the soul. It tickles that off-ignored corner of the brain willing to embrace cheesy cinema, but those distractions in establishing character roles and dynamics both distract from the task, and eventually weigh down the whole operation.

Such mild misguidance in defining what exact roles the characters embody, that’s the big messy low for Uncharted. Nothing is ever concise, despite being so zippy, caffeinated, and a trifle challenged on dialogue. Its highest watermark lies within parts (not all) of its visual blueprint, as well as a quirky Ramin Djawadi (Eternals) score utterly screaming “directionless wanderer”. Certain pieces, helmed by Chung’s camera acrobatics, could only be captured by Fleischer and not look insane in execution. With chase scene after chase scene, a high threshold of chaos forms to elevate the game every time, only slightly. The presence of common goons with unoriginal names like Hugo (Pingi Moli) and The Scotsman (a delightful Steven Waddington) strives to compliment that hook, soothe the tension amid Holland’s body blows. And we see a fine job of that, it doesn’t get exhausting, but it’s not entirely exhilarating either.

Ultimately, it is Fleischer’s inability to accurately read the room that keeps his exercise in greedy motivation underwhelming. Given very little to play around through a discount bin script hobbled by imbalanced portrayals and an overreliance on elaborate set pieces, he’s overcompensating on every element with no clear landing spot or sense of subtlety. Uncharted does what was necessary to fulfill its promise for high action and high risk. The high reward didn’t quite reach me as well as those who know the game are assured to. Those hardcore fans will have at least one reason for satisfaction at seeing Nathan Drake realized on screen, provided expectations stay at a conservative low. Anyone else going in for an adventurous romp, I’d look elsewhere, knowing this map-building story will have left my memory all too soon. (C; 2.5/5 Horns Up!)

Uncharted arrives in theaters February 18, with a warning not to leave out of one’s seat right away once the credits begin; rated PG-13 for violence/action and language; 116 minutes.