Assassin’s Creed, 2016.
Directed by Justin Kurzel.
Starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Michael K. Williams, Charlotte Rampling, Denis Menochet, Ariane Labed, Khalid Abdalla, Essie Davis, and Brendan Gleeson.
When Callum Lynch explores the memories of his ancestor Aguilar and gains the skills of a Master Assassin, he discovers he is a descendant of the secret Assassins society.
Less about the Brotherhood’s creed and more about a present-day corporation attempting to locate an ancient artifact that can control the very DNA of free will, Assassin’s Creed (directed by Justin Kurzel reuniting with his Macbeth stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard) is an uneven experience without its priorities straight. To clarify, there is nothing wrong with the concept of Abstergo (a corporation with deep pockets and shady operations, also modern day nefarious Templars) utilizing revolutionary technology to hunt down ancestors of citizens that are unaware they are descendants of a secretive lineage of assassins (who operated anonymously in darkness to keep world dominance out of the hands of said Templars), and then jacking those civilians into history to locate the Apple of Eden. It’s a framing device that allows characters to spectate/live out the greatest memories of their ancestors; imagine if The Matrix plugged into your family tree. Awesome, right?
Well, barely 1/3rd of the film is set in the past, (in this case, it is 15th Century Spain during the Spanish Inquisition), relegating the period to nothing more than stylized action sequences containing no actual characters whatsoever or emotional attachment to any of their fates. It is astonishing how a movie titled Assassin’s Creed explores absolutely nothing about the brotherhood, their goals, purpose, personal motivations or you know, the life of an assassin. Even Aguilar (Michael Fassbender), the key assassin with the knowledge of the Apple’s whereabouts, is merely a vessel to showcase parkour, horseback chases, overly choreographed melee combat and bloodless death. Nothing about the environments or feel of the movie even remotely resemble the Spanish Inquisition, thanks to a hideous background of cloudy, brownish colors. The wardrobe department is serviceable, but no one will come away feeling transported to an important time in history, which is a failed objective of the movie.
As for those action scenes, they are filled with constant quick-cut editing obscuring the spectacle. This isn’t a demand for elaborate and lengthy tracking shots, but some of the parkour is poorly slapped together. At times it’s like watching a trailer, as the characters zip around all over Spain. Combat is flashy and comes with various different weapons ranging from hidden blades to swords to smoke bombs and other assassin reminiscent supplies, while always remaining fast-paced and fluid. There are also some editing issues here as well, but for the most part, the action is always briskly fun. Oddly enough, the best stretch of action comes from the present day.
However, the issue of so many important moments coming from the present day is due to all of the expository dialogue. It’s amateurish writing not nearly accomplished in an intelligent enough method to dole out details of the plot that fans of the franchise already understand, and it’s boring to those learning. There’s too much telling and not enough showing. With that said, the theory of violence being a disease that can be cured by a mystical relic is one that does yield a couple of good line exchanges between Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender portraying a death row inmate descendant of Aguilar in the present day) and Marion Cotillard as a scientist determined to correct the flaws of humanity. Cotillard also hams it up presenting her character as completely out of her mind, showing she’s at least aware that this plot is all pretty absurd. Callum even blurts out “What the f***is going on” at one point, echoing the thoughts of everyone, as when this much material is breezed through full-on, the majority of it comes across awkward and unconvincing.
There are also some really awful moments where villains have the Apple of Eden, then proceed to casually talk for a few minutes to literally no one about what they are now capable of doing with the artifact in their possession. The villains themselves are as flat as the heroes, with the only exception being Jeremy Irons as the father to Marion Cotillard; he’s even more whacked out of his mind than her, actually playing his character completely straight-faced. Again, the main problem is that multiple writers are trying to cram in hours upon hours worth of storytelling into a rather breezy two hours that fly by, rather than focusing on one particular aspect. The results are as mentioned, endless exposition whenever Callum is not in the Animus.
At the end of the day, the idea of a person being able to relive the memories of their ancestors, also physically synchronizing on the spot and adopting those skills for their own (the film frequently cuts away to Callum mimicking the same weapon or acrobatic motions that Aguilar is doing) is one of the more genius concepts not just for a video game franchise, but any science fiction medium. The bursts of action and intriguing ideas throughout are enough to carry Assassin’s Creed to a passable level of popcorn entertainment. Hopefully, for the sequel, a balance is found between past and present day events.
As a final note, it is worth mentioning that while this critic has played all of the mainline Assassin’s Creed games, this review was written with an audience in mind that has no knowledge of the franchise. So, it’s safe to say that avid players of the games will notice many homages and references (some are more in-your-face while others are hidden); the leap of faith alone was quite the sight to see adapted to the silver screen. And yes, there is a barrel of hay, but not used in the way expected. On the other side of the equation, fans of the franchise will have to suffer through so much exposition detailing elements of the story and Animus that they already know. Again, this wouldn’t be so bad if the execution for presenting this knowledge was more built around actions, not copious amounts of talking.
This isn’t an atrocious start at all for a line of Assassin’s Creed films, just flawed, so here’s fingers crossed that Ubisoft gets it right the second time around, as they usually do with most projects.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★