Michael Fassbender has spent five years trying to get an Assassin’s Creed movie off the ground. An obviously gifted thespian who’s been looking for a franchise vehicle that wasn’t attached to an ensemble, it’s easy to imagine why on paper a property like Ubisoft’s time traveling parkour series seemed to be a great fit. Yet, with the finished film now before us, it’s hard to see anything too great about the end result.
To start with its good points, Assassin’s Creed is definitely the handsomest and first truly cinematic video game movie adaptation to date. Directed with visceral style to spare by Justin Kurzel, Creed veers from the oppressively sterile blues and metallic grays of the present to the radiant golden clays and earth tones of its 1492 flashback (or “regression”) sequences. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw takes special delight in composing an action set-piece based around the Spanish Inquisition’s fiery auto-da-fé, which gives way to some equally impressive swashbuckling.
Alas then that for all this visual splendor, the pretty images come to signify very little in a film that is a muddle to follow, even for the most ardent fans of the video game franchise on which it’s based.
Set for about 70 percent of its running time in the present, Assassin’s Creed is ostensibly the story of Cal Lynch (Fassbender), a bitter Texan who’s held a grudge ever since his father seemed to have murdered his mother 30 years ago. Hence why he winds up on death row in 2016. Sentenced to die, Cal miraculously wakes up after his lethal injection and discovers that instead of an afterlife, there is an even more incomprehensible existence in the clutches of the Abstergo Foundation awaiting him.
What Abstergo does, as well as what they want, is all pretty vague. There’s an Apple of Eden that vanished in the 15th century, which through the genetic memories of their confined patients, including Cal, they’ll soon retrieve again to do… something. According to Sofia (Marion Cotillard), Cal’s new empathetic counselor and warden, the Apple is the key to “curing violence,” but one look at her father Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), the head of Abstergo and a man perpetually missing a Persian cat in his lap, it’s clear that’s never going to happen in this joint.
Everything else about Abstergo and their machinations is ambiguous, as is their fellow slew of inmates who are descendants from ancient Assassins of the famous Creed; they’re here so Cal has someone to rebel against when he isn’t in the Animus, a giant metallic claw that once attached to your spine allows you to play the best video game demo reels ever conceived. In Cal’s case, this means accessing the life and times of ancestor Aguilar for admittedly visually dazzling battles against the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 Seville.
By all accounts, Assassin’s Creed aims to be the first respectable video game adaptation. Kurzel, fresh off of a challenging reinterpretation of Macbeth, which also starred Fassbender and Cotillard, tries to be as evocative as a Ridley Scott epic when he’s in the regression segments, and sprinkles the rest of the film with top-notch talent like his former Scottish lord and lady, as well as Irons, a drastically underused Michael K. Williams, and even Brendan Gleeson for a few scenes. Yet, they are all intensely committed to playing characters who are given little to say and even less to do other than the most base of plot exercises.
The troubles, in particular, seem to be rooted in a lackluster and thoroughly undercooked screenplay, which had three chefs in the kitchen who apparently never turned on the stove. Writers Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper, and Bill Collage’s credited efforts at penning a story hint at studio notes and labored rewrites, blurring character motivations and losing the thread on all of its big ideas, from what exactly “curing violence” would look like to the fact that viewers have little understanding of what the Apple of Eden does, lest they’ve played an Assassin’s Creed game or two. The editing by Christopher Tellefsen—who’s done great work in the past like Moneyball and Capote—is also an enigma, jarringly intercutting between scenes that feel suspiciously truncated or woefully underdeveloped from the page.
Still, the film is again not without some merits. As the first video game movie that actually makes a noticeable and concentrated effort at respecting its source material, Creed, like the games, excels while in the past. Consisting of essentially three separate swashbuckling action scenes, the 1492 sequences where Fassbender trades in his bleary grimace for long flowing Spanish locks and some kinetic fight choreography are fierce. The fact that all the actors are speaking actual Spanish is likewise a nice touch. Parkour athlete Damien Walters particularly shines in old school moviemaking sequences where he’s literally jumping across rooftops and ancient ruins with the trademark hood on. The second scene of this, which involves a death-defying escape from the Inquisition, is extreme sports eye candy.
Yet, these entertaining interludes feel strangely disconnected from the main narrative in 2016, which is far more prominent than the present day sequences within the games, but every bit as tedious. Fassbender is reliably committed as Cal, but without there being much to play here, he’s reduced to standing in stylish sets and costumes with Cotillard, espousing deadening exposition. At one point, Irons even visits Fassbender’s Cal for a little late night chat, and Cal unexpectedly quips, “At Abstergo, you like to keep it in the family.” It’s a rare moment of levity, remarking on both the nepotism of Rikkin and Sofie, as well as the narrative use of blood memories. In that second, Irons and Fassbender share what seems to be a sincere laugh, suggesting that these characters could amount to more than archetypes… but then the gears of the plot start churning again and the more interesting movie is averted.
As it stands, Assassin’s Creed is probably the best video game movie ever made, but that’s such damning praise that the Spanish Inquisition is probably already lighting their torches.