A colleague of mind constantly claims how studios should have at least been able to accidentally make a great video game movie at this point. Assassin’s Creed is unfortunately not the accident we’ve been waiting for. In those terms, sure there have been films of this ilk that have found success (the Resident Evil films), but it is strange that not one of the many films in this sub-genre has been able to find success on both financial and artistic terms for the majority of audiences. Given the game in question, I wouldn’t have pegged Assassin’s Creed as the one to solve this problem, but there surely could have been better choices made for this adaptation.
In the film, a prologue sets us up for a whopping three actions scenes set in the past, as we watch Michael Fassbender’s Aguilar lose a finger in an effort to show his dedication to the league of assassin’s. Cut to 1986 and we watch young Callum Lynch head out on the run, after seeing the death of his mother. Another 30 years go by and Cal (played by Fassbender) is on death row. Of course, he’s not actually executed. Instead, he is brought to Abstergo Industries, where he must participate in the Animus Project. This is a system that allows Cal to relive the memories of his ancestor Aguilar, who holds some sort of secret many are after.
For gamers, the problem is clear. Assassin’s Creed puts far too much emphasis on a sci-fi element that is not nearly as interesting as heading to the past and filling the shoes of a parkour-crazy assassin, who leaps and climbs his way across ancient cities and gets into cool fights. For non-gamers, the film will feel like am mix of cryptic dialogue and many scenes of characters watching other characters control characters that are setup in a strange sort of video game. Never mind how fascinating that complex layering could be if this were a completely different film altogether, the joy of seeing this particular game come to life is sidelined by far too much reliance on thinking it’s cool to be the watcher, as opposed to the player (thanks Nerve).
Despite never having heard of the games (he’s played them since), Fassbender went all in on this one. He’s not only the star, but a producer on this $150-ish million film. It allowed him to handpick director Justin Kurzel, who previously directed Fassbender and co-star Marion Cotillard in 2015’s Macbeth. That can assure you that this movie looks pretty great. While heavy on CG to bring 15th century Spain to life, those few scenes do a lot to deliver on both a stylized look at the period and showing some creative action set pieces that remind you of the game. That said, the context is mostly absent and at least two of these scenes end rather abruptly, leading us back to the grey hallways of Abstergo.
Dealing with the science fiction element could have been neat, but while Fassbender refuses to ever give a bad performance (similar to his process in the disappointingly bland X-Men: Apocalypse from earlier this year), everything around him feeds into the problems of this film. To preserve a sense of mystery and mystique, characters speak in a puzzling manner, but the longer this goes on, the more we realize just how underdeveloped all of these ideas are, which is alarming, given how much this film wants to explain itself.
Michael K. Williams, Brendan Gleeson, Jeremy Irons and well-known video game junkie Charlotte Rampling are all here for support, but each one feels lost. They resort to playing the types of characters we are used to seeing them as, which would go a lot better if we knew it would lead to more than just the desire to locate a MacGuffin. It would also help if any of them decided to crack a smile. No, the film doesn’t need to wink at you, but how often has Irons ever been boring in a movie? Fassbender manages to question the absurdity of this film at one point and you have to wonder if the cast was holding back these same thoughts when the cameras weren’t rolling.
By the way, I’ve barely made mention of the ridiculous plotting that runs throughout this film. Cal has almost no character to speak of, beyond being an angry man with issues. That said, he’s apparently the only person with close ancestral ties to the past, but must still hang around with others going through the same process for whatever reason. There are a lot of aspects like this that make for a questionable experience and speak to just how little faith the writers had in thinking a video game plot needed even more explanation to work on the big screen. Of course, this is also the same studio that thought it made sense to remove almost all action out of a Max Payne movie.
Much like another fault in the characters we watch in this film, Assassin’s Creed seems to have no motivation beyond being involved in something that looks cool. The film spends far too much time explaining itself and the action suffers from not fully investing in those moments. The money is on screen, even if it means having us sit around in lots of bland rooms where characters talk and presumably admire their quasi-futuristic clothing, but how should that be fun? This is a video game movie that believes its prestige talent outweighs the excitement of seeing the cool stuff offered in the actual video game. That was a mistake and now the assassins must hide in the darkness.