D: Justin Kurzel / 115m
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael Kenneth Williams, Denis Ménochet, Ariane Labed, Khalid Abdalla, Essie Davis, Matias Varela, Callum Turner, Carlos Bardem, Javier Gutiérrez, Hovik Keuchkerian
Another video game adaptation, more raised expectations (after all, it’s been something of a passion project for Michael Fassbender, so it should be good – or better than the rest, at least), the usual hype surrounding these sort of things, and what are we left with? A genre defining moment that sees, at last, a video game adaptation delivering on everything it promises, or yet another failed opportunity to prove that video game adaptations can work, even if it’s due solely to the people involved? Well, with Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft’s wildly successful video game series, the answer is: a bit of both.
First off, if you’re a gamer, then chances are you’ll enjoy the movie for the same reasons you like the game. It retains the parkour chases from the games, keeps an historical backdrop for the game elements to take place in, includes but doesn’t expand on the Bleeding Effect, makes continually good use of the hidden blades set in bracers on the assassin’s arms, and focuses on the eternal battle between the Assassin’s Creed and the Knights Templar (though this time for the Apple of Eden and not the Pieces of Eden). In short, much of the movie will be familiar to anyone who’s played at least one of the games.
Secondly though, if you’re not a gamer, and this is all new to you, then you might find yourself less impressed by all of the above, and more concerned as to why many of the narrative elements don’t make any sense whatsoever. Take the manner in which Callum Lynch (Fassbender) is co-opted by Abstergo Industries into their genetic memory programme: about to be executed for murder, he’s strapped down and about to be given a lethal injection. He blacks out and when he comes to he’s in Abstergo’s complex outside Madrid. Dramatic, eh? Well, not really. We all know Lynch can’t be killed off so early in the movie, so why all the Death Row stuff? Why have him on Death Row at all? We see him running away from the Knights Templar when he’s a young boy; why not have him captured after being on the run (albeit for thirty years – which begs the further question: why did Abstergo take so long)? If you can think of a really good reason for any of this, please let director Justin Kurzel and his screenwriters, Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage know, so they can maybe put together Assassin’s Creed – The Recut.
Obscure narrative decisions aside (let’s not even think about the woolly-minded inclusion of Lynch’s dad as an old man (Gleeson), a subplot that hints of excised scenes that might have explained it all a bit more), Assassin’s Creed is a video game adaptation that makes the same basic mistakes that every other unsuccessful video game adaptation makes: it lacks emotion and characters we can care about. Despite the best efforts of all concerned, Callum is just another stereotype whose aptitude for violence (in the pursuit of peace, no less) is exploited to the fullest time and time again. As for Cotillard’s character, the outwardly concerned and considerate scientist, Dr Sofia Rikkin, her attempts at showing sympathy for Lynch’s predicament remain unconvincing throughout, as if it was the only trait the screenwriters could come up with, so often is it trotted out. And if there’s a badly hidden riddle that the movie fails to address, it’s why employ an actress of Cotillard’s calibre, and then give her a supporting role with so little to do?
As frustrating as much of the movie is, Assassin’s Creed does impress with its action scenes, though even then there are caveats. These scenes are carved up into tiny bite-sized pieces – scraps, if you like – by the kind of rapid-fire editing that obscures what’s going on and who’s doing exactly what to whom, and makes it all too difficult to follow. There’s a tremendous amount of athleticism on display here, and Fassbender is a part of some of it, but overall his stunt double is put through his paces as Lynch’s Spanish ancestor, Aguilar de Nerha, hurtles over rooftops and engages in plenty of Dark Ages fisticuffs. It’s all done at breakneck speed but exciting as these sequences are – and they are – the editing gets in the way. The sequences are certainly kinetic, but with editor Christopher Tellefsen determined to make everything go by in a blur, and Kurzel apparently happy with the way these fight sequences look, what should be impressive, awe-inspiring and crowd-pleasing stuff lacks the true impetus that would elevate them to a point where every viewer is saying to themselves, “Good God, wow!” Instead you can applaud the effort that’s gone into assembling them, but that’s as far as it goes.
In between the action sequences, Kurzel and his cast get bogged down by endless reams of exposition, while subplots build quietly in the background. Fassbender does what he can but this isn’t one of his best performances, largely because the script gives him very little to be getting on with (though to be fair it’s the action that’s important, not the characters). Irons is an unsurprising bad guy, Rampling and Gleeson are brought in for five minutes apiece, and the likes of Williams, Ménochet and Davis have to make do with roles that are even more underwritten than the main ones. Only Labed makes a real impression, as Maria, one of Aguilar’s fellow assassins; against the odds she stands out where everyone else seems to fade into Andy Nicholson’s murky production design.
If all this makes it sound as if Assassin’s Creed is an awful movie that deserves to be avoided, then that’s not strictly true. It’s just that with all the talent involved, this particular video game adaptation stood a good chance of bucking the trend and actually working on its own merits. That it doesn’t is an indication – as if it were needed – that video games are incredibly difficult to adapt for the big screen, and it’s likely they always will be. But if you go into this with an open mind and don’t expect too much from it, there’s a lot to enjoy; it’s just that what’s on display isn’t as exciting or as fresh and rewarding as its makers will have intended.
Rating: 5/10 – another missed opportunity, Assassin’s Creed adds itself to the ever growing pile of video game adaptations that have fallen way short of matching the success of their original incarnations; having set things up for a sequel, the makers will have to find a better way than this to bring audiences back for another rousing adventure in history, and retain the services of Kurzel, Fassbender and Cotillard.