Videogame movies are – you don’t need us to tell you this – a tough nut to crack, but Michael Fassbender and director Justin Kurzel give that nut a fair bashing with their take on Assassin’s Creed. A quite successful bashing too, although not without falling into some quite familiar traps.
Essentially, there’s a lot of good stuff here. Kurzel – as you’ll know if you’ve seen either of his previous films, Snowtown and Macbeth – really knows how to frame a landscape, and he uses that skillset here to bring the Spanish inquisition to life in impressively eye-catching ways. Those transitions, from the modern day to hundreds of years ago, are visually delicious.
Drones, helicopters, cameras mounted to actors, and unique rigs built especially for this movie were all within Kurzel’s arsenal this time around, and he deploys all of this tech to ensure that – even when someone’s jumping off a building – you’re going with them (look out for the ‘leap of faith’, lifted straight from the games to jaw-dropping effect). This ensures there’s a real weight to the action scenes, and no sense of a CGI-induced disconnect, which isn’t a given in the world of big screen blockbusters anymore. With Assassin’s Creed you’re close to the action and it feels real. Furthermore, Jed Kurzel’s memorable score – chockfull of pulsing drums – heightens these thrilling scenes even further.
The biggest problem, for me, is the structure of the story. The modern day material interrupts the historical action repeatedly, which grates and frustrates each time it happens. The main character – as you may not expect from the trailers – is very much Fassbender’s Callum Lynch, a contemporary criminal who’s rescued from death row by Abstergo Industries (home to Jeremy Irons as a grumpy boss and Marion Cotillard as Callum’s exposition-spouting handler).
Abstergo is interested in Callum’s 15th century Spanish assassin ancestor Aguilar, who’s also played by Fassbender and is infinitely more interesting than his other character. From here, a plot kicks off that sees Callum popping into a machine called the Animus regularly to interact with Aguilar’s memories. There are a few twists and turns for Callum, but you’ll want to see more of Aguilar, making it wearisome when we’re forced to jump in time to and fro. Since the main driving force of the movie – in both time periods – is a MacGuffin, couldn’t we stay in the past for a bit longer? Maybe flesh out the Spanish inquisition characters into fully fledged people who all have lines? Apparently not.
To say much about the story would be impossible without divulging spoilers, so let’s talk about the performances. Fassbender is ace, as always, delivering a sullen seriousness across both characters. Irons and Cotillard, alongside Charlotte Rampling and Brendan Gleeson, bring prestige the modern day plot strand, although their characters aren’t necessarily ones that develop or intrigue. Cotillard, in particular, feels like she drew a short straw. Her character’s motivations and decisions largely go unexplained, and instead she’s stuck with spelling out the plot or watching Fassbender from the sidelines.
There’s an argument to be made, though, that you don’t go to a videogame movie called Assassin’s Creed looking for multifaceted characters. You go for the cool assassin stuff, which this film handles very well, both in terms of visuals and action. If the film spent more time in this more engaging environment, it could’ve been something special.
But the source material means that you can’t just have a period piece, so maybe we shouldn’t complain too much. With those restrictions in place as well as the time-consuming need to explain the entire concept for uninitiated moviegoers, we should probably just be glad that Fassbender, Kurzel and writers Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage served up an enjoyable movie with a few truly awesome sequences and shots. They cracked the nut as best they could.
Assassin’s Creed is in UK cinemas from January 1st.