The latest video game adaptation falls victim to the jinx which has plagued films based on a game in the past. There is hope. A much better movie is at the center of the confusing and silly mess.
Director: Justin Kurzel
Writers: Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Denis Ménochet, Ariane Labed, Matias Varela, Charlotte Rampling, Michael Kenneth Williams, Brendan Gleeson, Khalid Abdalla, Callum Turner, Muchelle H. Lin
After being put to death for his crimes, Cal Lynch (Fassbender) is revived and whisked away to Abstergo Industries in Madrid, Spain to participate in an experimental procedure to cure violent tendencies in humans in exchange for his freedom and a new life. The program’s head scientist, Sophia Rikkin (Cotillard) and her father, Alan (Irons), are really looking to unlock the genetic memories of Cal’s ancestor, Aguilar de Nerha (Fassbender in Spanish) an Assassin in the Spanish Inquisition, to find the Apple of Eden for the Knights Templar. The mythical Apple possesses the ability to remove men’s freewill and the Assassins are its protector.
If you take the basic premise of the video game, rip-off The Matrix, add some amazing action, throw the word “science” in every third sentence, but offer no science, and top it with an apple, you have this movie. Assassin’s Creed wishes it could be a much smarter film, but it lacks the brains. Cotillard’s Sophia is a scientist who truly believes she can use the Animus (a machine which unlocks genetic memories) to “cure violence and combat aggression.” She has faith she is working towards a better tomorrow, which seems naive and impossible when her father (who is a main player in the Templar Order) is explicitly telling her their mission is to take away freewill. And then she is shocked by his actions when ten minutes before he explained his plan. This is just one of many silly elements that plague Assassin’s Creed. But due to the supremely low bar set by other movies based on video games, it takes the top spot as the best adaptation.
Kurzel’s fifth outing could have been a decent movie if it wasn’t bogged down with such a bad script which offers no explanation and resolves to only be a setup for the franchise. He does a fine job of getting suitable performances from his seriously talented cast, even if Irons and Rampling are wasted as evil thing 1 and evil thing 2 and Williams is criminally underused when he disappears for long stretches of time after giving the film a needed dosage of levity. Nothing can save them all from dialogue such as “you are going to lead them to the Apple,” someone yells at Cal after putting an apple on his food tray, “no, I’m going to eat it” he replies.
The dialogue is not the only problem hindering the cast. No one is given any kind of backstory or reason to care about them. Alan and his Templar’s superior, Ellen Kaye (Rampling), are following the mission of the centuries old Order, find the Apple of Eden. People are violent and dumb, so they need to be controlled. Sophia’s is a stock standard wide-eyed scientist. Cal is just a guy with the right genetic code. In the beginning of Assassin’s Creed, Cal is put to death in a Texas Penitentiary, but we are never told what his crimes were. It had to be pretty bad if he is being strapped to the chair. Despite the jokes people make about my home state and the death penalty, it actually takes a very brutal crime for the state to break out the needle. So why in the hell are we supposed to root for this guy? Why should we care if the Animus kills him in pursuit of the Apple? He is obviously not repentant for his crimes which had to include, at the very minimum, murder. Anti-heroes are all fine and well, we just need a reason to like them. See Deadpool.
There is much talk about using science to bring the masses under control and finding the Apple, but no one attempts to expound on the technology. The Animus is a blatant rip-off of the chairs used in The Matrix to plug people in to the simulation with the action mysteriously broadcast as shadowy figures for all to see. But how? The video games use TV screens, how is the past visible to those in the present when there is nothing to broadcast it on? Lesslie, Cooper, and Collage didn’t spend time giving any of the characters a backstory or creating a decent plot, so they should have had time to make up some kind of “scientific” justification as to how the Animus works. Science is not like magic, it can’t be thrown around willy-nilly without explanation.
Assassin’s Creed has many weaknesses, but there are several strengths in the moments where the film follows Aguilar in 15th Century Spain. Unfortunately, there is not enough of them and that probably won’t change with the sequels. When in Spain, the dialogue spoken only in Spanish, adding color and a sense of reality to moment. Aguilar and his companion, Emir (Varela), evade the Templars thru the streets of Granada with the camera keeping close on the assassin to make it seem as if we are passively a part of the action. Surprisingly, the close camera work is not shakily aggressive like in found footage films. It allows the audience to easily tell the difference between the heroes and the villains, who are all dressed in similar, muted colors. The only time the camera work becomes distracting is when the perspective switches to make the audience feel like they are firing an arrow or brandishing a knife. It is an obvious nod to the game and highly unnecessary.
The stunts, including a heart-stopping free fall known as “Leap of Faith” in the games, were filmed practically and CGI is used sparingly to clean up the look. In an age of CGI everything, practical action is a treat. Fassbender and Varela performing the majority of the fighting sequences allow for Kruzel and his DP Adam Arkapaw to stay close on the actor’s faces. Wide cuts of the action are rarely used.
Assassin’s Creed puts too much stock in the storyline taking place in current time when the best parts of the film are set in the past. The plot is much simpler, protect the magical McGuffin from the big, bad people. If the writers would have stuck to that kind of simplicity, then the video game adaptation would have been much better.
2 ½ out of 5 Stars