Assassin’s Creed, 2016.
Directed by Justin Kurzel.
Starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Kenneth Williams and Charlotte Rampling.
Callum Lynch, a prisoner on Death Row, is rescued from execution by the Abstergo Foundation, who reveal he is part of an ancient brotherhood known as the Assassins, and the memories of his ancestor are the key to the future…
There are destined to be two camps when it comes to the movie adaptation of Ubisoft’s phenomenon video game series Assassin’s Creed: people who have played the games, and everyone else. Don’t get me wrong – just because you haven’t played the game doesn’t mean your opinion critically on this as a movie is invalid, but it does mean you will see this in an entirely different way. As someone who has played these games for almost ten years, trust me, Justin Kurzel has delivered among the most faithful adaptations of source material ever committed to celluloid, certainly when it comes to games; from the visual style to narrative touches all the way simply to references, lines, and mantras, the story of the Assassin’s battle across history against the Templars is here in its purest form. If you’re a fan, no question, you will find things to like. That’s a guarantee. If you’re watching this cold, or stepping back to view it as a piece of cinema, it’s problems are evident, if not perhaps as legion as some may like you to believe. It’s not quite the great video game to cinema hope we wanted.
The reason is, as many suspected beforehand, the script. It was always going to be the trickiest beast and Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper & Bill Collage’s screenplay simply cannot reconcile the history-hopping action and backstory of the silent war with characterisation; Callum Lynch, our modern day protagonist played with stoic, edgy verve by Michael Fassbender, is vastly underwritten and driven by only the basest of sketched out motivations, while his historical ancestor Aguilar de Nerha–an Assassin in late 15th century Spain, battling the Inquisition–is barely a character at all, rather a jack-heeled cipher to explore the bigger metaphysical and philosophical questions the script, and Kurzel, are far more interested in. What is violence? Does it connect to our relationship with God? Are we constructs of nature or nurture? It’s all packed in there, sprinkled on but without the substance to make it rise.
The same goes for all the other talented thespians in this eclectic cast – Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael Kenneth Williams – all of them underwritten or under-seen. You want more. Yet it’s the mythology Kurzel is always reaching for, the bigger ideas, failing to reconcile such concepts are always realised more substantively through strong, rounded, interesting characters. Assassin’s Creed has none.
That’s not true, actually. Aguilar could have been interesting, except we don’t see nearly enough of him – and this, ironically, could be the biggest defense by critics of the biggest gripe by game loyalists. You see in Ubisoft’s series, the modern day narrative always played second fiddle to the stories of the historical figures in 12th century Acre or 15th century Renaissance Italy, allowing the game designers to bring these ancient worlds vividly to life and gamers ample time to play in them; to the point indeed that Ubisoft ultimately did away almost entirely with the modern day story altogether. The reverse proves true for this movie – Aguilar only exists to serve Callum’s awakening to the secret world under our eyes. Now looking at this as a writer, this decision makes sense; if you want the Animus, Abstergo etc… to be understood by a modern audience, you need the present as a context, a window, into the past.
Many will criticize it for being about Callum when it’s actually the right choice – the problem is that we’re not in 1492 Spain nearly enough, and tellingly when we are Kurzel’s film comes alive. His visuals, throughout, are outstanding; he uses the Eagle, a strong metaphor in the game, as the guiding point into a smoke-filled world of rough fire, heat and brimstone. In the film’s standout sequence, as Aguilar escapes Templar executions across the Andalusian rooftops, Kurzel’s editing and cinematography are at times breathtaking. There simply isn’t enough of it, as the needs of story labor us in a modern day scenario that feels leaden, and builds to a drab and unfocused climactic beat that is all sequel set up, no dramatic punch.
Make no mistake, though – Assassin’s Creed should not be consigned to the dustbin of poor video game adaptations. It deserves better than that. Justin Kurzel marshals his forces vividly, creating with his visual palette the same kind of stark and arresting landscapes he did for Macbeth, but he’s let down by a script which tries to serve too many masters. It’s heavy on fan service while being thin on character, underwriting its principals which forces Michael Fassbender et al into stifled, difficult performances looking to break out. Jed Kurzel provides a thumping score when married to visuals, and fans of the game series will find plenty here enjoyable, but from a narrative perspective, it fails to come alive. The opening crawl giving backstory the film then serves to repeat about half a dozen times should have been a clue. A frustrating beast in many ways because there’s a far stronger picture as lost as the Apple of Eden here, destined never be found.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★