Beyond the exotic locales and globe-trotting adventure there’s a recurring bubble gum bit in Uncharted that, in an odd way, epitomizes the whole movie. The sweet pink rectangular prisms are not the most mature-minded snacking fixation. They’re seen as kid’s stuff or something unrefined. A case in point would be the gum-chewing soldier gag in Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla. Come to think of it, the only way bubble gum has ever looked or sounded tough in movies was when wrestler-turned-actor “Rowdy” Roddy Piper said he was all out of it before unloading his shotgun in They Live. Tom Holland, sir, you are no “Hot Rod.”
As soon as they put bubble gum in Tom Holland’s mouth as Nathan Drake in Uncharted, he looks and comes off like a kid. Any character shadings that were attempted to make the young man look and act more 25 than 15 go right out the escape hatch window with every clumsy chomp. The gum is just the first of many (likely picky) things that set Tom up for maturation failure.
There’s desirable women calling him “sweet” and “cute” like he’s an elementary schooler instead of seeing him as a studly hero. There’s the more capable Mark Wahlberg calling him “kid” every chance he gets. Even the shortened nickname of “Nate” sounds like the nice boy from Algebra class writing you notes at your locker and not the “puckish rogue” out there challenging history’s great mysteries with determination, grit, and courage.
None of those interactions and traits do Tom Holland any favors in a big spot that he should have been allowed to outright own. By golly, it’s a good thing the kid (see, there I go doing it too) is an upper-level movie star athlete pulling off his own moves and an even better thing the high adventure that requires him to run, jump, leap, flip, and swing without his trusty Marvel webs is very entertaining. Still, what should be the second coming of Indiana Jones comes off more like a graduation and gender swap of Dora the Explorer.
Loosely borrowing plot points from the hit gaming universe created by Amy Henning (particularly the fourth console chapter), Uncharted plays like an origin story to thrust the Sir Francis Drake descendant into the world of treasure hunting. Nate’s older brother Sam (Rudy Pankow of Outer Banks) introduced him to the mythic spectacle of exploration history as an orphaned pre-teen before disappearing on the run. The grand lost ships and absconded gold of Ferdinand Magellan was the legend Sam most chased with nothing but postcard breadcrumbs of his world-hopping whereabouts.
Fast-forward to the present and the now 25-year-old Nathan gets by as a Brian Flanagan-wannabe bartender and pickpocket before being recruited by Sam’s old partner Victor “Sully” Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg) to join where his brother left off in the search for Magellan’s riches. That puts the two Bostonians in a precarious race of potential betrayals against the merciless Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas, chewing the scenery of his Barcelona stomping grounds), the Spanish billionaire who claims a generational birthright to the missing gold, his fetching hired muscle Jo Braddock (The 100’s Tati Gabrielle), and the side-choosing tweener Chloe Frazier (Sophia Ali, formerly of Grey’s Anatomy). Uncharted spins its globe from there.
With big studio backing and excellent stunt work coordinated by Stephen Dunleavy (The Matrix Resurrections), the sizable set pieces and physical brawn of Uncharted are top-notch. Cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon (Last Night in Soho) and editors Chris Lebenzon (Top Gun: Maverick) and Richard Pearson (Wonder Woman 1984) created a polished production of visible stability that glides with the moving muscles on-screen and avoids the herky-jerky shaky cam of other action flicks. Holland’s extraordinary athleticism is on full display and that key trait couldn’t be more fitting for this role. Everyone else is out there trying to keep up with him, including the subpar score support from composer Ramin Djawadi.
That said, the way Tom and the movie are brought down is with the underlying ageism in the script and ensuing actions. A little thing here or a little thing there would have been passable because the boyish charm is a very evident strength of the Brit. However, thanks to his work playing a teen Spider-Man, Holland has not been able to fully demonstrate adult charm in his career to date. He couldn’t pull off getting aged in Cherry, and he’s not going to be, from the chest up anyway, a cultured and cultivated Fred Astaire whenever that rumored biopic gets to shooting if he’s constantly pigeon-holed.
Here in Uncharted, it started with the aforementioned bubble gum and “kid” labels. The puberty jokes for facial hair, dead-end flirting failures, and even nonsense like the inability to tie a necktie at the age of 25 when you’re a high-end bartender to the point where you need Mark Wahlberg’s father-figure help all pile on in a recurring fashion. Even if he knowingly does not match the classic character description anymore than Tom Cruise matched that of Jack Reacher, all those belittlements peck away Tom Holland’s legitimate efforts to rise into this iconic part with the proper physicality and maturity. How are we expected to take him seriously when the movie doesn’t try to do so in the first place?
Many may be left looking back at the long developmental hell of Uncharted and wishing for what could have been. Mark Wahlberg was attached to Nathan Drake and his dirty henley shirt for over a decade. At 50 with impeccable hair and plenty of buffness left in his broad shoulders, Wahlberg comes off as too young to play the gray-haired Sully part. Mark probably should have kept the leading role, which suits the usual Hollywood ball hog who’s made a living essentially playing himself and stealing spotlights. But then we wouldn’t have Tom Holland. We would be left with just another Wahlberg-playing-Wahlberg movie.
In many ways, Tom Holland’s efforts in Uncharted are sabotaged. If Zombieland and Venom director Ruben Fleischer and his trio of screenwriters with varying TV and Transformers series experience shaved out all those dumb pot shots and gags, both Holland and the entire movie would be tougher and tighter without losing an ounce of charismatic appeal. The lush international escapades of it all are that good and crowd-pleasing for the big screen. Yet, they can’t seem to help themselves with the low-hanging fruit, and here we are stuck with diminishing returns that are too telegraphed and too easy. Tom is the gift that is wasted.
Uncharted ends with accomplished heroes and teasers promising big developments and future capers. Like the movie says over and over, “If it’s lost. It can be found.” There is time and growth possible to save and improve this eager PlayStation Studios franchise starter. With the origin story out of the way, maybe they can unshackle their marquee star and get into some real danger. To do that, they need to start with spitting out all the bubble gum.