In the tradition of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “The Mummy,” “National Treasure,” and “Jumanji,” “Uncharted” taps into a familiar tradition of globe-trotting, roguish adventure, and disguises the influence of those earlier films (and countless others) considerably better than you might expect.
Since making his debut with “Zombieland,” director Ruben Fleischer has developed an aptitude for cheerful proficiency (if not a ton of discernible personality) that he deploys to great effect in this brisk pastiche, especially with Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg bickering their way through one set piece after another.
Meanwhile, Sophia Ali and Tati Gabrielle steal much of the movie from their better-known costars with intriguing turns as competitors and more-than-equals for the prize Fleischer keeps tantalizingly out of reach from all of them.
An adaptation the video game of the same name, “Uncharted” stars Holland as Nathan Drake, an orphan obsessed with 16th-century explorers; he grows up to become a bartender and pickpocket after his older brother Sam (Rudy Pankow) abandons him in childhood to avoid arrest. While living vicariously through the postcards Sam sends him from exotic, far-away lands, Nathan gets contacted by Victor “Sully” Sullivan (Wahlberg), a fortune hunter seeking his help to locate a treasure supposedly lost during Magellan’s trip around the world. Nathan reluctantly agrees in the hopes of the journey somehow reconnecting him and his brother, but they soon run afoul of Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas), the son of a wealthy industrialist who wants to find Magellan’s gold for himself.
Collaborating with Chloe Frazer (Sophia Ali, “Grey’s Anatomy”), Nathan and Sully soon find themselves combing the streets of Barcelona looking for clues that might point to the location of the gold. But if Moncada’s limitless resources and ruthless determination don’t present big enough obstacles for the scrappy fortune-hunting trio, he also hires Jo Braddock (Tati Gabrielle, “You”), a former colleague of Sully’s, to match wits — and if necessary, weapons — with them in order to retrieve the treasure.
Like many of the performers that the Marvel Cinematic Universe seemingly overnight-catapulted to stardom, Holland possesses an undeniable charisma and a sincerity on screen that makes him tirelessly likable, even when Nathan is pickpocketing a young customer at the bar where he works. Here, he possesses an almost Harold Lloyd–like quality where each of his stunts feel improvised and effortless at the same time, combined with an inner incredulity that he’s pulled off yet another feat of derring-do.
In fact, the only thing Holland seemingly cannot do is generate chemistry with Wahlberg as Sully, a counterpart and proxy brother with whom Nathan should be irresistibly clashing; instead, he limps through their interactions like scripted awards-show presentation banter.
Wahlberg shrewdly takes a back seat to Holland in the film, but his buddy-comedy bona fides flourish more when he’s playing a role that’s truer to himself or, conversely, he’s pitted against a type that pushes him outside of his comfort zone, and so their interactions flop. He seems unable to decide if Sully is truly a scoundrel, or he’s actually kind of a nice guy pretending to be tough, and it results in a toothless performance that creates no friction for Holland’s character, even after we discover a secret connection to Nathan’s brother’s fate.
As the third member of their team, Ali isn’t altogether convincing as a hard-shell fortune hunter toughened up by a life of loneliness and betrayal, but in comparison to Wahlberg, she and Holland have chemistry for days, and some of the film’s best sequences occur when the two of them share the screen. As Jo Braddock, meanwhile, Gabrielle is unfortunately saddled with an almost comically dopey villain — there’s no opportunity to accomplish a task that she won’t tackle from the most counterintuitive approach possible — but she’s so magnetic on screen, whether she’s groveling to Banderas or pummeling Wahlberg, that you can’t take your eyes off of her.
Suffice it to say that action movies as a genre mostly abandoned the basic principles of physics long ago, but “Uncharted” indulges in some of the most preposterous sequences put on screen in a long time. No matter how skilled Holland might be at actually performing (or seeming to perform) Nathan’s parkour-influenced fighting style, the movie just keeps escalating the danger over and over without bothering to bring along a sense of danger or urgency. For example, a climb up a group of tethered equipment pallets hanging out of the back of a mid-air DC-10 was perhaps obviously always going to be a little bit silly, but Fleischer sacrifices suspense for momentum, so the scene becomes a showcase for the imagination of the film’s visual effects team instead of the characters we’re supposed to care about.
All of that said, it’s one of the first times I’ve watched a movie and thought “I’d like to play that game,” which may be a dubious accomplishment, but it speaks to the movie’s ultimate aims: namely, to recreate the serialized, task-oriented nature of its source material, which of course was cribbed liberally from the films listed above and the serials that in turn inspired them.
Four decades after Indiana Jones was dragged behind a truck, Nathan Drake aspires to be his next-generation counterpart — which is why only being towed behind an airplane will do. That doesn’t especially make “Uncharted” a great film, but for better or worse, you can probably feel the same level of satisfaction after watching Nathan complete just one or two of its single-serving challenges than in trying to lose yourself in the superficiality of the entire journey.
“Uncharted” opens in US theaters Feb. 18.