Release Date: December 21st, 2016
Directed by: Justin Kurzel
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Michael K. Williams, Charlotte Rampling
I am of the firm belief that any film that needs to open with text detailing the film's background story is probably a bad movie. Assassin's Creed opens up with that text, most of which is later explained by the characters. This should have been a warning for what was to come.
I mentioned in a previous post how I couldn't get through the awful 2015 adaptation of Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. I didn't realize at the time that the same director, Justin Kurzel, was slated to direct another adaptation: one based on the hit video game series Assassin's Creed. And surprise! It also stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. And double surprise! It is also incredibly dull.
Assassin's Creed tells the story of Callum Lynch, a man who, as a boy, saw his mother murdered by his father. Thirty years later, he is sentenced to death for killing a pimp. This is everything we know about the character. We are told that he is predisposed to violence, but we never see it first-hand until the film starts getting into the wacky science-fiction stuff. He acts as boring as his nonexistent backstory. Anyway, Cal is executed by lethal injection, only to wake up and realize that it was all a ruse planted by a nefarious organization called Abstergo Industries. Abstergo wants the world to think he's dead so they can use him without consequence. Their CEO Allan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons, uncharacteristically restrained) and his daughter with a completely different accent Sophia (played by a chronically subdued Marion Cotillard) created Abstergo as a front for the Templars, an organization that dates back hundreds of years with the singular goal of eradicating violence through total world domination. They wish to do this by finding the legendary Apple of Eden, a McGuffin that will somehow purge the world of free will. The last known possessor of the Apple was Aguilar de Nerha, a Spaniard from the late 15th Century, who acquired it in 1492. Aguilar was part of the order of Assassins, a group dedicated to fighting the Templars at all costs. Also, he is the direct ancestor to Cal Lynch. Sophia hitches Cal up to a machine known as an Animus that will access his genetic history, allowing him to relive the memories of his ancestors in order to find out where Aguilar hid the Apple. The film is then split between 2016 and 1492, where we watch Aguilar and his Assassin compatriots fight to stop the Templars.
There are a few other things happening in this film, but they don't matter, because this movie is boring, confusing, and utterly joyless. Did you see the cast list? Michael Fassbender? Marion Cotillard? Jeremy Irons? Brendan Gleeson??? This is an all-star cast of amazing actors, and it's completely and utterly wasted on them. Assassin's Creed does little to make us care about the characters or the plot. Fassbender's Lynch is an uninspired brute with no backstory and no personality traits, and like every other character in the film, he's thoroughly unlikeable. Also, Jeremy Irons, come on man. We know how much you love to chew scenery in crappy movies. What did the director do to everyone? Slip them some Ambien?
And since the characters are so unlikeable, it makes it even harder to care about the plot. We're told what's at stake (The Templars will remove humanity's free will!) but it's so far-fetched and silly that it's hard to take it as a serious threat. During one of the scenes from 1492, there's an amazingly shot, high-paced action sequence that is essentially a car chase using horse-drawn wagons, and I found myself bored because I couldn't tell who was who or why I should care about them.
Video game movie adaptations are generally awful, and despite how often the two mediums intermingle, it is much easier to create a cinematic experience within a video game than it is to create a video game experience in the cinema. Assassin's Creed certainly tries, and there are a lot of moments that will be familiar to fans of the game franchise, from their leaps and stances to the hidden assassin's blades. There's a moment near the end of the film where Fassbender starts climbing the Animus by leaping up with his whole body, just like the video game character would do while pulling himself up a tower. But a few select shout-outs or references to the games are not enough to save it. For instance, the filmmakers are constantly hammering home the "eagle" metaphor by having a CGI eagle flying around for half the movie. We get it guys, the assassins are like eagles. Freedom and whatnot. Every time Cal enters the Animus, we're treated to an extended and dizzying overhead approach to 15th Century Spain in the midst of war. These go on intolerably long, and don't center on any particular character, and when we finally focus on someone specific, they're somewhere else entirely and occupied with another issue. These aren't just simple establishing shots, these are extended scenes of carnage from a birds-eye view. I'm confused, are these the film equivalent of video game loading screen? Did they actually put the loading screen, the least-liked part of any game, into the movie?
The issue here is that this movie doesn't want to be a video game adaptation. Assassin's Creed wants to cut its strings and be a real boy. We get it, Assassin's Creed, you want to be a movie. But it takes more than high-quality actors, a director who did Shakespeare, and beautiful cinematography to create a decent film. You need to have a plot, a script, and characters worth watching, and this film just doesn't offer it. And it takes itself so seriously that it hurts any suspension of disbelief we might have had for a science-fiction film. When Sophia tells Cal that the Apple of Eden may have descended from a technologically advanced civilization or aliens or something, I don't think we're supposed to laugh. Everyone looks angry, grim, and unfazed by what it is happening around them. For crying out loud, it's an adaption of a video game people, something that's played for fun during your downtime. It's not House of Sand and Fog.
Not everything in the film is bad, and the filmmakers should be applauded for some of their choices. For instance, all of the scenes taking place in 1492 Spain are spoken completely in Spanish with subtitles, which does help with some of the realism (that is until they start breaking out martial arts moves). The costume design is incredible, although I don't know why Queen Isabella had face tattoos. The fight scenes, especially the ones in 1492, are well choreographed. One of the few shining performances was that of Spanish actor Javier Gutiérrez playing Tomas de Torquemada, who brings all the grandeur and fire that you'd would want from the hated leader of the Inquisition. For these alone I didn't drop the film below a "1" on my ratings scale. But these are only a few shining moments in a waste of two hours.
If you want an Assassin's Creed experience, then have one by playing the games. I do not recommend this film to anyone, fans or otherwise.