There are two audiences for Uncharted.
Fans of the Playstation video game series will look for the big-screen adaptation to realize their greatest expectations. Those who’ve never played the games will see Uncharted as a harmless action-adventure diversion and an opportunity to see Tom Holland – the unlikely savior of the global box office – play something besides Spider-Man.
Uncharted is for the second camp, as I am, people who aren’t mapping their knowledge of the games to what’s on the big screen. The film is ostensibly an origin story for the game’s protagonist Nathan Drake, played by Holland. Drake is an orphaned bartender in New York with a penchant for pickpocketing and treasure, courtesy of his older brother Sam. One night, Drake meets Victor “Sully” Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg), a shifty treasure hunter and associate of Sam’s. Sully convinces him to join the search for a long-lost, priceless fortune. The hunt spans three continents and is rife with dangers, double and triple-crosses, and physics-defying antics that only an adrenaline junkie treasure hunter would like.
You can apply that to several famous characters, most notably Indiana Jones. (The film even references him.) Uncharted’s biggest mistake is not differentiating Drake enough from his predecessors, especially those unfamiliar with the games. What makes Nathan Drake unique? Is it his encyclopedic knowledge of history? Possibly, but the film often prioritizes his ability to do parkour over his intelligence. To be fair, he is a very limber, athletic individual, but it feels more like a Tom Holland attribute than a Nathan Drake one. His relationship with “[his] brother Sam” comes close to poignancy and insight into Drake’s identity when the script isn’t turning it into meme material.
There’s nothing wrong with Nathan Drake, per se. You do have to wonder how he became popular enough as a video game character to warrant a whole series and a potential film franchise. For Uncharted (the game) fans, this flaw might be fatal.
Ironically, Tom Holland, the most controversial aspect of Uncharted, is its saving grace. People have been debating his casting as Nathan Drake since the film’s announcement, arguing he was too young and didn’t look the part. (Someone even Photoshopped a five o’clock shadow onto his face when the first promotional image was released.) That might be true if you consider the games, but the film isn’t particularly worried about them. The mostly-blank canvas approach it takes with Drake works in Holland’s favor. It allows him to design an action hero that suits his strengths as an actor and screen persona.
Holland is best when he embraces the youthful exuberance, sincerity, and vulnerability that’s made his turn as Peter Parker so successful. You can’t help smiling at his reactions to the shenanigans he finds himself in or when he casually cracks a code no one else can figure out. He’s less convincing in fight scenes, especially with guys who look like they can break him in half (the film does go through great pains to show off how incredibly fit he is). Holland’s charisma ultimately wins out, nullifying skepticism that he can carry a film outside of red-and-blue spandex.
Uncharted is a better film for having Holland around. From Drake’s wide-eyed perspective, the film is an enjoyable thrill ride through catacombs and dungeons, rather than an uninspiring exercise in box-checking it would’ve been otherwise. Ruben Flesicher brings nothing new to the table, but you can forgive the director because Holland pulls you into his good time. Sometimes, Fleischer matches his vibrant, breathless energy. Drake free-falling from a plane, clinging to supply crates and a red vintage car, is the film’s most impressive and improbable scene, actually looking like something from a videogame. (It’s so impressive that the scene plays twice.) Fleischer often lets his star do the heavy lifting (literally) and elevate the film beyond a rote, empty spectacle. It works most of the time.
That doesn’t mean Holland is a miracle worker. Not even an Avenger could save Mark Wahlberg from being Uncharted’s black hole, sucking up the excitement with his surprisingly wooden and lifeless performance. He sleepwalks through the film, tossing out occasionally humorous quips with the wit and passion of someone doing their taxes. He gives Holland almost nothing to work with, making their partnership feel hollow. Holland has better chemistry with Sophia Ali as Chloe Frazier, even though the film doesn’t capitalize on it. The film also underutilizes Tati Gabrielle as the villainous mercenary Jo, which is strange since she’s the film’s only real source of danger.
Moreso than another IP-driven cash grab, Uncharted is a compelling case study for Tom Holland as an action star. The film is an unexpectedly engaging and enjoyable experience with him at the forefront. Whether he fits the Nathan Drake mold that gamers are familiar with is largely irrelevant. When the mid-credits scene rolls in, you’re already sold in for the sequel because Holland will likely take up the mantle again. That is an increasingly rare occurrence in franchise-obsessed Hollywood and a testament to his growing star power. Five o’clock shadow or not, Nathan Drake and Tom Holland have charted a path forward, one worth taking with them.