This movie really puts the “ass” in Assassin.
I will admit two things before getting started: I’m a huge Assassin’s Creed fan. I was the kind of fan that was far more interested in the modern day, science fiction aspects of the world over the time-jumping past. The second thing? I generally like video game film adaptations, to some extent. As bad as 1994’s Street Fighter was, there’s a level of kitsch that makes it enjoyable to me. It’s always fun — on a Joel Schumacher level.
Assassin’s Creed is never, never fun.
The film begins with an odd prologue — introducing us to both Aguilar (Michael Fassbender) and a young Callum. The former is action-heavy, engaging, and interesting. The latter is bizarre, and does a poor job at setting up any backstory for Callum himself, who finds his mother murdered by an assassin. This event triggers him so deeply that he commits murder some few years later (something we never see) and we flash-forward to 30 years later — where Callum is to be executed by lethal injection… except he isn’t. He’s saved by Sophia (Marion Cotillard), doctor and daughter of Abstergo CEO, Alan Rikkin (the criminally underused Jeremy Irons). The premise for This particular branch of Abstergo is collecting the memories of death row criminals to “find a cure for violence” — to control a person’s free will. Seems pretty noble, but the movie clearly wants you to side with the cause of the Assassins over the maligned Templars. It does well at informing the audience of the “gray area” that exists between the two causes, however.
The film, as expected, jumps between the past and the present. The ratio of present to past is around 70% to 30% — enough to ruin the momentum of both stories, honestly. This is a complaint many players have had about the older games, especially regarding the 2007 debut. Looking at 2015’s Syndicate, you’d barely know that there is a frame story (despite the few modern day cutscenes littered throughout). The movie spends a lot of time reiterating several plot points and devices from the earlier games. I understand that this was done to introduce the concepts to a wider audience, but it disrespects the people who would (most likely) be the movie’s primary ticket buyer. With lore as broad as AC has, digging its talons into books and comics that details various other Assassin and Templar cells without interfering with “game canon”, the script looks even lazier and more forgettable. Even great performances can’t save murky writing where the actors deliver cringy lines without any confidence. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t give “honorable mention” to Fassbender’s bizarre performance of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” — who thought that was a good idea?)
The breakout star in this film is Ariane Labed, who briefly appeared in last year’s The Lobster. She’s as sleek as Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate’s leading heroine, Evie Frye. She kicks ass, but sadly the limelight is firmly on present day tomfoolery. To be 2016, Abstergo seems to not remember or retain any knowledge they gained in 2012 with Desmond Miles… or anything that came before. It comes off rather hokey.
Speaking of hokey, I have a quick note about the Animus. What were they thinking? When the whole concept of ancestral memories becomes more palatable than the method of “synchronizing” with those memories, you have a problem. The weird robotic arm that flails Callum about like a claw machine gone rogue is unintentional comedy — especially when Callum explodes into a fit of convulsions and mouth foam.
It’s easier to condense what I liked in the film to a few simple points. The film is gorgeously directed by Justin Kurzel with cinematography by Adam Arkapaw (the two previously worked with Fassbender and Cotillard on 2015’s Macbeth) The film score is incredible. It might be the most memorable main title theme ever for a video game movie. The production design of 15th century Spain is gorgeous and never fails to dazzle. The use of practical stunt effects and coordination put the often CGI-heavy fight scenes of contemporary films to shame. It’s brutal, visceral, and a blast to watch. It’s a true shame that it doesn’t last.
At the end of the day, I can’t help but feel that this would’ve made a better game than film. Both plots would have more place to breathe. It’s a huge undertaking of any director to juggle one story in a film (much less two, with equal care). The film could be much better with a stronger edit. As it stands now, it hardly makes any sense. If the past were more fleshed out, it’d make an excellent standalone film through that alone. The modern sequences are painful, long, and ruin any momentum the film gained during the Animus sequences. The past even has a salvageable plot… but the present day conflict kills all chances the film has of not sucking. However, bonus points must be awarded to whoever decided to keep the Spain sequences completely in Spanish — a bold decision that the games have never made (but have cleverly explained, in context).
The film isn’t the worst one of 2016. It’s sandwiched neatly between the abysmal Blair Witch and the not-as-abysmal Ghostbusters. There’s something missing, though. There’s hardly any heart in this movie — if any at all. With the amount of fan service you’d get in a modern Star Wars flick, I’d expect a film like Assassin’s Creed to do the same — even at the cost of alienating the mainstream, movie-going audience. But it does not. Instead, fans of the games are treated to a Cliff Notes version of the warring factions dumbed down to the point of self-parody. This is all coming from a passionate Assassin’s Creed fanboy here… so just imagine what the average Joe thinks of this hodgepodge of yawn-worthy dialogue and occasionally goofy wire work.
Despite a handful of redeeming qualities, Assassin’s Creed can dive into a bale of hay and never, ever return.