ASSASSIN’S CREED (4 out of 10) Directed by Justin Kurzel; Written by Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage; Starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K Williams, Denis Ménochet; Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, thematic elements and brief strong language; Running time 140 min; In wide release Dec 21, 2016.
Nearly a third of the way through this film, Michael Fassbender says to himself, “What the f@#$ is going on?!?” We’d like to ask the same question.
This film is thoroughly incomprehensible to anyone who is not already familiar with the Assassin’s Creed video games. And despite some thrilling action sequences, it suffers from the main problem of every video game movie ever made: you’d be better off spending two hours playing the game than watching the movie.
Which is really too bad, as Assassin’s Creed seemed tailor-made to beat that curse. Fassbender, a fan of the games, both executive produced and stars in a dual role as Cal Lynch, a felon condemned to be executed for his crimes, and his ancestor Aguilar, a 15th century assassin during the Spanish Inquisition. Lynch finds himself at the center of a centuries-long feud between two factions: the Templars who crave control and power, and the Assassins who defend freedom.
The Templars’ most recent incarnation is in the Abstergo Foundation, where a team of scientists led by a father and his daughter (Jeremy Irons and Marion Cotillard) have invented a machine call the animus. Resembling a giant crane, the animus allows someone to relive the lives of their ancestors, whose memories are stored in your DNA.
Once hooked in to the animus, Lynch begins reliving the life of his assassin forefather. This has the dual effect of both teaching Lynch, through unlocking muscle memory and practice, how to engage in all sorts of acrobatical feats and assassination techniques, and also reveals to Abstergo where Aguilar may have hidden a powerful artifact known as the Apple of Eden.
And none of that is explained well in the film. Most of those story elements are only familiar to me because of knowledge of the video games. The film bungles its exposition badly, assuming its audience understands these things, or at least not caring if they’re properly explained.
It tries to make up for it with some breakneck action scenes– and those scenes are pretty cool. But they also spend a lot of time winking at their target audience: remember this level? This is just like that!
Except it isn’t. Not at all.
While a video game can get away with thinly-motivated and fleshed out main characters (it expects you, as the player, to imbue your player character with yourself, after all) a movie can not. A video game can have unsolved mysteries and slow pacing as it reveals its twists and turns over 40 – 60 hours of gameplay. With this movie clocking in at 2 hours 20 minutes and still feeling like they were saving everything for the sequel, they also did not use their time well.
What you end up with is the world’s worst tutorial level and opening cinematic for an Assassin’s Creed game in existence. These problems all land at the feet of director Justin Kurzel, who also was responsible for last year’s Macbeth, also with Fassbender and Cotillard. In both cases, the films chose to focus on Epic Battle Scenes™ rather than characters and context and missed the essence of what made the original source material so engaging in the first place.
It’s unclear who will be more frustrated by this movie: people who have no knowledge of the games and are thoroughly baffled by the lack of exposition, or core fans who will hate seeing something they love so abused.
I wish Ubisoft had made a game out of Aguilar and the Inquisition rather than this movie. Then I might have liked it.
4 out of 10