As I think I've mentioned several times before, sometimes I just want to go to see a movie – not a particular movie, not a specific film, I just want to have the experience of going to the cinema. At this point my usual critical standards necessarily take a bit of a hit, and indeed in some cases I go along to see a film I know virtually nothing about, in the hope of getting a pleasant surprise. This week I was going to go and see the new version of Cyrano de Bergerac, but the light of my life expressed the desire to see it as well and we couldn't get our schedules in sync. And so I ended up going along to Ruben Fleischer's Uncharted instead.
I'm going to make the reasonable assumption that you're an intelligent and rational person (despite the fact you're reading this column) and you don't necessarily wander along to see any old movie that's on just because you can get a bit obsessive about your film-going. Is that fair? If so, it's probably quite unlikely you'll have considered watching Uncharted, because it's just not that kind of film.
Normally when I write about a film, at the back of my mind is the faint hope that I will be able to help someone make their mind up about whether or not to watch it, and thus in some small way make a contribution to the sum total of their happiness. But you don't need me to tell you whether or not to watch Uncharted – I suspect you've already concluded not to, a decision I would probably applaud. So what are we all doing here? Well, you may be wondering just what it's like to watch this movie. What is that fabled and ephemeral thing we call experience in this case?
Well: the movie starts by doing that slightly annoying thing where it opens in media res with an action sequence from the third act. This finds young Tom Holland mixed up in an extravagant action-and-stunt sequence that rather puts one in mind of the Bond movies, back in the days when they were fun rather than glum. It's all quite ambitious and visually interesting, although it was clearly done almost entirely inside a computer than with actors and physical objects.
Very soon the film jumps back a decade and a half to when young Holland was… well, even younger. As one of Tom Holland's most prominent talents is the ability to look about two-thirds of his actual age, the producers have a bit of a challenge when it comes to finding someone to play a younger version of him who looks appreciably less mature but is not in fact a mewling infant. I never really bought into the idea of this being a younger young Holland, but this bit is mainly just laying in exposition and back-story.
It turns out young Holland is playing Nate Drake, a cocktail barman, petty thief, expert on mediaeval history, gymnast, and morally-flexible treasure hunter. (Now that's what I call a diversified CV.) He also has a bit of a tragic family history just to obscure the fact he's essentially a collection of plot functions. Into his life trundles roguish chancer Victor Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg – it will tell you how long this film has been stuck in Development Hell if I reveal that Marky Mark was initially supposed to be playing young Holland's part, rather than the more character-based role of his mentor). Sullivan is on the trail of the fabled gold of Magellan (everyone in the film pronounces Magellan with a soft G, which I must confess really annoyed me), which young Holland just happens to be an expert on. ‘I'm not teaming up with you to find the gold,' says young Holland, but of course by the very next scene he has had a complete change of heart and the two of them are planning to knock over an international auction house in search of a Maguffin (or possibly a Majuffin).
It turns out that the family who financed this Majellan guy's original trip are still around and wanting payback for their support – this is very long-term thinking – and have hired various bad guys to make the lives of young Holland and Marky Mark more stressful than they could have been. Antonio Banderas pops up as a wealthy scumbag – off in the distance, you can just faintly hear a cry of ‘I told you so!' from Almodovar as he recalls telling Banderas he would just end up wasting his talent in America – but only briefly, as the film is Spanish-financed and they wanted a local star in it for a bit. Most of the villaining is done by Tati Gabrielle, while in a more ambiguous and rather transactional role as another dodgy treasure-hunter we find Sophia Ali, whose accent goes on a bit of a voyage of discovery of its own.
Well, there's a bit in New York and then they all fly off to Barcelona – there's a scene on the plane where Holland and Wahlberg discuss at length the fact they're going to Barcelona, followed by a smash cut to a panoramic view of Barcelona with a huge caption reading ‘BARCELONA' over it, because this is that kind of film. The film has sort of hit its groove as a Bond-Indiana Jones-Robert Langdon knock-off by this point so you can imagine the sort of things that go on, but the product placement is probably sillier than you're thinking. Then it's off to the Philippines for the final act.
As you may be able to tell, Uncharted hadn't really done a lot for me up to this point, feeling almost entirely procedural - characters run around in search of plot coupons, doing exactly the things you'd expect them to, without any real sense of peril or significance. It's literally so bloodless that one character has his throat slit on camera without there being any mess or spillage at all. In the final section, the film goes beyond inane into the realms of the actually silly - all the way through the story is stuffed with contrivances that don't make sense if you think about them; by the climax, the film is not making sense even if you don't think about it.
Occasionally I wonder if I do have some kind of unjustified bias against computer game movies - it's true that I can't remember ever seeing a good one, but it doesn't necessarily follow that a good one doesn't exist somewhere out in the wilderness. Or perhaps the form itself is inherently compromised - plot and characterisation are always secondary concerns in a computer game, with the main focus being on gameplay and graphics (which reach the screen as action and imagery). Uncharted is agreeable to look at and there's always something going on, but you never really care what it is.
Perhaps this is why the producers have taken the reasonable step of engaging young Holland (who is himself an engaging presence, after all) to lead the movie. The lad does have a definite charm, but he's got virtually nothing to work with in terms of a coherent character. Initially his performance as a wise-cracking cocktail waiter turned globe-trotting treasure hunter is virtually identical to his turn as a wise-cracking adhesive teenage superhero; eventually he finds the odd grace note of swagger, but not much. The Sullivan role is likewise crying out for someone with real charisma and a strong persona of their own, just to paper over the cracks between the different plot functions he's required to carry out - but Wahlberg just isn't up to the task.
There's nothing wrong with mainstream popcorn movie entertainment, there's nothing necessarily wrong with making the most of a popular franchise property. Uncharted hits all the minimum criteria as a functional movie, and has clearly had quite a bit of money spent on it. But at no point did I ever care about what was happening; I was engaged, in a minimal sort of way, but never actually entertained. Nevertheless, calling it a bad movie would be unfair, because that would suggest it was much more interesting than is actually the case.
Also This Week…
…Jim Broadbent earns his top billing in the late Roger Michell's The Duke, a based-on-fact comedy drama that's been hanging around for a release because of you-know-what. Broadbent plays Kempton Bunton, a member of the awkward squad much annoyed by the fact that British pensioners have to pay for a TV license (the film is set in 1961), while the government happily splashes out vast sums on works of art.
To cut a long story short, Bunton ends up with a stolen Goya of the Duke of Wellington hidden in his wardrobe, and sends a series of idiosyncratic ransom notes to the authorities – which they naturally refuse to take seriously. It all ends up in court.
This is a pleasing update on the classic Ealing comedy formula, with a bit more depth and poignancy to it. Broadbent is superb and well-supported by Helen Mirren and Matthew Goode; the film is very funny but also quietly raises some significant social points. The telly license angle will probably prove a bit more provocative than the makers intended, but apart from that this is a well-made and very satisfying film.