‘Assassin’s Creed’ (2016) | Movie Review

Movies based on video games have been… well… let’s just say they do not have the greatest track records. Video games thrive on exploration of a world, walking around and looking at stuff, in between moments of incident. You have the ability to take as much time as you wish to do something, and the personal accomplishment fulfills you. The characters and story can be thinly put together since the player fills in her of himself in the shoes of the protagonist. A driving, third-person narrative is totally at odds with this concept. So, it is up to the filmmakers to not only to adapt a digression-filled story into a concise couple of hours, but they also have to populate it with fully realized characters. That’s a tall order when the entire point of this narrative is for one person to play it out in their chosen way.

I am not very familiar with the Assassin’s Creed series. I played about 45 minutes of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and, being a movie guy who likes things at a certain pace, was bored by all the walking, running, and climbing you had to do. Based on this movie, though, that was no the best representation of this series, I guess. Assassin’s Creed, the film, follows a death row inmate named Cal (Michael Fassbender) in present day Texas. Instead of being executed, however, he is transported to a facility in Madrid run by Dr. Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) and his daughter, and chief scientist who is really operating the place, Sophia (Marion Cotillard). They have taken Cal because he is a direct descendant of Aguilar de Nerha, an assassin in 15th century Spain sworn to protect the Apple of Eden, which supposedly has the genetic key to control free will. Through science mumbo-jumbo device, Sophia is able to connect Cal with the memories of his ancestor in order to find out where he hid the MacGuffin.

Is that an overly convoluted and kind of silly premise? Absolutely, it is. When they first introduced it, I’ll admit I rolled my eyes pretty hard. It just seemed needlessly complicated. However, once the film continued, I bought into it. It’s a neat idea this notion of reliving your ancestor’s footsteps. Though, the film’s idea of lineage is a bit troubling. It seems to believe that if you had an ancestor that is violent, you will be predisposed to violence yourself unless you actively use your free will to stop yourself. It only scratches the surface on the nature of man in that capacity, but it’s at least nice to see a big blockbuster video game movie that has at least an idea on its mind. The same can be said for the concept that religion, consumerism, and the like are inventions by a group called the Templar Order to control people, but only the harnessing of free will can the masses truly be herded like sheep. Is a world without violence a fair trade for the elimination of choice and freedom?

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Because this is a video game that requires action, these ideas are put on the back burner in exchange for chases, knife play, archery, and general fighting in 15th century Spain. Director Justin Kurzel stages fine action set pieces, which neatly cross-cut with Cal acting them out hooked up to the machine in the present. For some reason, though, Kurzel needs to fill every shot with a tremendous amount of smoke, while also putting a brown filter over everything. So, these neatly put together sequences would probably be exciting if you could see anything happening on screen. I have no idea why every shot in this movie, be them in just a talking or an action scene, is so dark. In the first scene of the movie, Fassbender’s Aguilar gets a dramatic entrance that is punctuated by a musical stinger when you see his face for the first time. I am convinced the stinger was added to let the audience know that is our main character because it is lit so darkly we can’t tell who it is.

Cal is a bit of a blank slate. It’s an interesting choice to have your main character be a convicted murderer who was on death row, but besides those facts, we don’t really get that much to his personality other than he is aggressive. Fassbender tries his best to fill in blanks and sells the madness a person can have by being hooked up to the machine too often. There just isn’t enough there to connect to him. There is even less there for Cotillard to play as Sophia. Irons and Charlotte Rampling as a Templar leader have a good scene, but that is more on account of the thrill of seeing these two heavyweights on screen together than it is a scene that pertains to the story.

Ultimately, Assassin’s Creed is a mixed bag. There are occasional moments of excitement and actual thought. There are others that are tedious and frustrating. The sad thing is this tepid, 5/10 review puts it in the upper echelon of video game movie adaptations. So, if you hear me or anyone say, “It’s the best video game movie of all time,” please know that is the definition of damning with faint praise and not actual praise. This a middle of the road movie. Stylish without being too stylish. Thoughtful without being too thoughtful. Exciting without being too exciting. It’s not a disaster, as it easily could have been, by any means, but you don’t need to rush out and see it.

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