Assassin’s Creed (2016)
Welcome to the Spanish Inquisition.
In 15th Century Spain, a war was raging between the Knights Templar and the Assassin’s Brotherhood — the former seeking absolute control over humanity’s ways for the ‘greater good,’ the latter fighting to preserve free will and choice. At the heart of the feud lay an ancient object that could change everything — the Apple of Eden — a relic containing the genetic code for free will.
Enter present day — Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender) is spared from death row, right at the eleventh hour, by Dr. Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard) and whisked away to an enigmatic facility in Madrid, Spain, headed by her stern father Alan (Jeremy Irons). There, Lynch learns that he is a descendent of Brotherhood member Aguilar de Nerha (also portrayed by Fassbender), his genetics holding memories that could lead Alan to the whereabouts of the Apple.
Surrendering his body and mind to Sophia’s hi-tech machine the ‘Animus,’ Lynch is thrust back in time, essentially becoming Aguilar, re-enacting his history and slowly but surely getting closer to revealing the secret behind the Apple of Eden’s location.
The most telling line in this whole movie, which got the biggest (and only) laugh from viewers, involves an exasperated Michael Fassbender, The Light Between Oceans (2016), muttering just under his breath ‘What the f**k is going on?’ It’s just one converging moment between character and audience, where feelings are the same. The rest of the movie, well …
Let’s just get the obvious query out of the way — no, I haven’t played any of the Ubisoft games, its spin-offs, nor read the novelizations. All I know is that they’re all largely well received, with a dedicated fanbase and a huge mythology — heck, one of my non-gamer friends digs a couple of the games, too.
Judging by the basic concept sold in the trailer, I figured that a feature adaptation of Assassin’s Creed could actually work, the film existing as a berserk offspring between the historical playfulness of The Da Vinci Code (2006) and the punk-like acceptance of one’s violent identity — think Wanted (2008). Tragically, what we have here is a movie that completely lacks the mystery and intrigue of the former, while also being devoid of the wild action and snarky anarchic humor of the latter — Assassin’s Creed taking itself far too seriously to emanate neither fun nor thrills. How could it have gone so wrong?
For starters, let’s look at Aussie director Justin Kurzel, who was approached by Fassbender to helm the project after working together on Macbeth (2015). (That’s right, Fassy doesn’t get away scot-free either as he’s partly to blame here, having reeled filmmaker Kurzel in himself as one of the main producers).
Kurzel is clearly a depressed type, having made several films that deal with the darker side of humanity and people’s inclinations towards violence. While, sure, his bleak outlook worked for Macbeth, which was aided by one’s familiarity with the text, it felt downright oppressive in 2011’s Snowtown, this drabness rendering the feature as boring and bland. Hey Justin, lighten up dude. Ever considered making a comedy?
In order to work, Assassin’s Creed needed a director who could probe some serious questions about the inherit nature of both violence and free will (questions that Assassin’s Creed brings up but never develops), without ditching all of the fun or inventive action sequences, the very meat-and-potatoes of a genre pic like this.
One alternate filmmaker that comes to mind (who has also previously worked with Fassbender) is Englishman Matthew Vaughn, X-Men: First Class (2011). You see, Vaughn understands that to make a successful popcorn movie, one needs to strike a balance between genuine character moments, exciting action and the occasional drop of humor, all this packaged within a tone that works for the material, even if it needs to venture into R-rated territory – Kick-Ass (2010) and Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014), for instance, demonstrating a perfect mixture of light and dark.
That said, Kurzel’s take on action movies seems to be about wasteful character bits, underwhelming shrugs and gallons of glum, all wrapped up within what could either be viewed as a genuine attempt to create a different kind of videogame adaptation or simply just pompous. Adding weight to the latter’s truth is Assassin’s Creed brand director Aymar Azaïzia’s recent over-the-top declaration, ‘I really think it’s going to be a milestone movie … There’s going to be a “before and after Assassin’s Creed movie” for sure.’ Yeah man, I’d call that ‘going to the toilet.’
The toilet is also where much of the film’s talent goes. We’re talking good performances of undeserving characters, be it Charlotte Rampling’s rendering of shadowy Templar member Ellen Kaye or Jeremy Irons’ ambitious project director Alan. Brendan Gleeson, In the Heart of the Sea (2015), gets shafted in one helluva thankless cameo as an older version of Cal’s father, Joseph, Marion Cotillard, Allied (2016), continues her unending obsession with misery as Sofia, the under-appreciated daughter and the real brains behind the Animus undertaking, while Fassbender admittedly has a firm presence as the protagonist – I’m thinking if he can still work a dreadful role such as The Counselor (2013), then there’s a whole tank of untapped charisma within him.
It also pains me to report that while one of my favorite cinematographers Adam Arkapaw, Macbeth (2016), shot this film, Assassin’s Creed could be his worst looking entry to date. Dim and uninspiring, I can only imagine it’ll look like you’ll need a torch and an aspirin if opting to see this muddle in 3D — which is an absolute shame considering the story’s possibilities of jumping back in time whilst running around with light-footed assassins. At least production designer Andy Nicholson’s rendering of the Spanish Inquisition feels somewhat authentic, even if it’s captured in such a colorless way.
The real winner for me is the spacious dynamic sound design by Markus Stemler, In the Heart of the Sea (2015), and the atmospheric music by Justin’s brother Jed Kurzel, The Babadook (2014). As tempting as it may’ve been, the sound never dips into a chaotic wall of noise that could’ve easily been the default way to go for a big movie such as this. Instead, there is much in the way of intention and focus with every beat almost convincing me that there was something worthy of attention going on within the narrative … I said, almost!
The three writers in Michael Leslie, Macbeth (2015), and duo Adam Cooper and Bill Collage, Allegiant (2016), seem to have bitten off more than they can chew with a mix of redundant flashbacks, dry-as-sandpaper dialogue and no genuine attempt at developing main players. The fact that, collectively, these guys weren’t even able to lock down on how best to express the story’s exposition to an audience results in one thing — confusion. The stakes for both the anti-heroes and villains are never made truly apparent — what on Earth does the Apple of Eden actually do anyway? — and, with Cal’s flashback sequences already written as it were, there is a distinct lack of tension. What an opportunity lost.
As the credits rolled on this one, I thought it was average. But the more I pondered on it, the more depressed I became, having not felt this way since Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), but at least that film had some great action moments, the said feeling effectively intended. Look, I’m actually happy to have caught this one before 2016 was out — it just made my ‘worst’ list, so I can effectively leave it in the past.
Assassin’s Creed — do not pass go; do not collect two hundred million dollars.
1.5 / 5 – Poor
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie