Sunday, March 6, 2022

Good Boys: UNCHARTED and DOG

I distinctly remember reading an article in Newsweek pretty much exactly 20 years ago bemoaning the lack of viable old fashioned Movie Star men. Back then, when we didn't know the Movie Star was on the way out, it was pretty easy, if unfair, to argue that the likes of, say, Matt Damon and Will Smith and Ben Affleck weren’t exactly Harrison Ford and Denzel Washington and Robert Redford. I liked all those guys at the time, but in retrospect, those younger stars actually were among the last of the great Movie Star men, right? We’d love to have someone of their charisma and popularity ruling the box office charts again, able to take a fandom with them to new standalone programmers and prestige projects and would-be franchises alike. That all of the above names are still working to some extent is further proof that we keep relying on the old at the expense of the new. Now, it seems, for a newer actor to reach that top tier, he needs to wed his persona to a superhero to keep the audiences flowing. Just glance at the grosses for a non-Marvel movie for a Marvel star and you’ll get the idea.

Even someone like Tom Holland, fresh off a Spider-Man movie so insanely popular that people were willing to get COVID to see it, is more of a media figure than a marquee star at this point. Audiences love Spider-Man in any iteration. And people like Holland as a social media figure—interviews with his current girlfriend Zendaya (an actual compelling star, the main reason he’s a tabloid staple) and that gender-blurring lip sync dance he did to Rihanna's “Umbrella” some years back are probably as shared as, if not more than, clips of his film work. (The latter’s more memorable and visually appealing, too.) But just put him alone in a cringe over-reaching crime picture like Cherry or half-baked (and off-trend) YA sci-fi Chaos Walking and hardly anyone shows up, while those who did aren’t exactly brewing the cult classic status. He’s a likable bloke, to be sure, with an on-screen energy that comes across as part Tom Cruise hustling charm, part Michael J. Fox smirking underdog. But if audiences don’t give those like him a chance to grow beyond popular characters into their own reliable stardom, we’ll be starved of stars of the future. So far, even Holland’s Spider-Man efforts recognize he’s not his own draw yet, pairing him in each with an actual movie star of some sort—Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Downey, Jr.—or another—Benedict Cumberbatch—or another—Jake Gyllenhaal—to carry the load.

So now we have him in Uncharted, a long-gestating video game adaptation that’s sure to have Sony dreaming of sequels already. It pairs Holland as a boyish orphaned Magellan enthusiast with Mark Wahlberg as a jaded treasure hunter. Together, they each need the other to find a cache of lost gold before Antonio Banderas’ scheming rich guy does. The movie, directed with usual bright pop sturdiness by Ruben Fleishcher of Zombieland and Venom and scripted by a typical flotilla of writers, isn’t exactly reinventing the form. It’s an amiable globetrotting adventure with a bit of National Treasure family destiny, some Tomb Raider puzzle-solving, and a splash of Indiana Jones escalating stakes. But the combination makes for a diverting fetch quest, complete with faded maps, missing ships, interlocking MacGuffins, and preposterously elaborate centuries-old scavenger hunt clues. (I would’ve said an even less believable detail is a Papa John’s in Barcelona, but I googled it and, hey, there is one.) The plot has the usual good guys, bad guys, and some who go both ways, and action sequences that are just the right side of entertainingly outsized. I liked best a shootout in and out of a cargo plane, and later a climactic fight between two airborne pirate ships dangling from helicopters—my kind of modern spin on swashbuckling tropes. The whole production is simply a string of passably entertaining adventure sequences spackled together with pleasantly predictable plotting. And the whole thing hangs together on the decent buddy chemistry it whips up between the two leads, with an established star lending his appeal to bolster a fledgling one, a dynamic that mirrors the characters’. Wahlberg’s reluctantly affectionate gruffness balances out Holland’s relentlessly overeager puppy-dog acting, and gives their scenes a low-key charm. Sometimes that, amidst some busy action, is enough to get by.

Speaking of stars: Channing Tatum. He has that whole effortlessly-holding-the-screen thing down perfectly. Like the best Movie Stars past and present, he can simply exist in a frame and have our attention. He has unforced naturalism and shaggy off-handed charisma, the sensitive soul behind the muscled features, a melting heart in a block head. It makes him an interesting presence—and a surprisingly adaptable one. He works as a dancer from the wrong side of the tracks—Step Up—or an action figure—G.I. Joe—or an Olympic wrestler—Foxcatcher—or a Gene Kelly-type hoofer—Hail, Caesar!—or a stripper with a furniture-making hobby—Magic Mike. He hasn’t had a live-action role since 2017, so it’s a great welcome return to see him back on our screens with Dog, a movie built almost entirely around him. Tatum co-directs with his Mike screenwriter Reid Carolin and together they know just how to use what Tatum can do. Posed against a sunset, leaning on the hood of a pickup truck, beer bottle in hand, with his solider past haunting an uncertain future—he’s the complicated state of modern American masculinity at a glance. The character is an alcoholic brain-damaged vet desperate to get his life back on track. His former commanding officer offers a trade: a letter of recommendation in return for driving a troubled military dog to the pup’s deceased handler’s funeral. The idea is clear, the goal is plain, and the plainly framed, unshowy style Tatum brings to the look and feel is a straightforward showcase for what he does best.

The result is a simple, sentimental, and corny movie that finds Tatum and a Belgian Malinois on a road trip from Oregon to Arizona and back again. It’s a one man show, with meandering detours and episodic stops along the way at a variety of eccentric characters populated with quickly sketched character actors at work. Those vignettes never quite lift off the way they should, but the overarching emotional spine of the thing—a “who rescued who?” bumper sticker come to life—is sold entirely on the strength of Tatum’s performance. His humanity shines through, and it’d be hard not to feel for him as his tough exterior and in-his-own-head moping starts to sympathize with the poor dog’s troubles—war, after all, leaves these scars on all involved, man and beast alike. It’s a throwback to the sorts of movies that made stars in the middle of the last century, a simple concept hung on the appeal of a performer, and tailor-made for his skill set. There’s something to this wandering, sight-seeing, small-scale character piece that, even in its predictability, remains totally watchable. One wants to see how this isolated, lonely, frustrated, wounded jock can find his way to heal, even a little bit, by reconnecting to his buried emotional intelligence and recognizing something of himself in another—even if that other is a dog. You have to start somewhere.

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