Everybody knows that movies based on video games have, at best, a ropey reputation. Yet even after Warcraft became the most recent title to disappoint, all eyes immediately turned to Assassin’s Creed hoping it would be the exception to the rule. There were reasons to be optimistic: not only is the game set in a visually inventive and vibrant world, the movie version reunites the trio of Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard and director Justin Kurzel, whose bloody and brutal Macbeth mesmerised audiences in 2015. But while their creative efforts enlivened Shakespeare’s stabby tale by adding cinematic flair, Assassin’s Creed merely flatters to deceive.
The plot itself is easy to follow for the already initiated and for those who are new to the franchise, with Kurzel wisely taking the game’s best known elements and weaving them into an entirely new tale. Fassbender plays new creation Callum Lynch, a death row prisoner who is saved from execution by Cotillard’s enigmatic scientist, a reluctant stooge for the mysterious Abestergo Industries. He’s taken to a secret facility where he learns he’s a descendant of Aguilar de Nerha, a 15th Century assassin who is the last known possessor of an important artefact, the Apple of Eden. Using a piece of revolutionary tech called the Animus, Lynch is imported into the memories of his ancestors to track the mystical artefact.
The most effective of Kurzel’s tweaks is reimagining the Animus as a giant mechanical arm which tosses Lynch around Abestergo’s futuristic facility, allowing him to interact with his ancestor’s memories in a way that’s far more cinematic than just laying down for a nap in a hospital bed. Though it’s occasionally overused, disrupting the flow of the action, more often the device helps to translate the so-called ‘bleeding effect’ as Lynch begins to experience flashbacks outside of the machine and starts to question his own reality.
What’s not quite so successful is an attempt to crowbar weighty themes relating to man’s predilection towards violence into the plot. Assassin’s Creed is a stupendously daft movie at heart, revolving around a preposterous piece of technology and a magical MacGuffin that contains the genetic code to free will, yet Kurzel insists on treating the whole endeavour with all the stony-faced seriousness of a prostate exam. The script is loaded with portentous dialogue, every scene is shrouded in murky greys or muddy browns, and the entire cast has been seemingly banned from using any facial expression other than a bitter grimace. In his hunt to make Assassin’s Creed work on the big screen, Kurzel has apparently forgotten that it’s also supposed to be entertaining.
The characters, too, lack proper shading. Fassbender naturally brings a brooding magnetism to Lynch, but all we really learn about our narrative lynchpin is that he hates his father and isn’t much fond of the bible either. Meanwhile, Cotillard’s Sophia has daddy issues of her own thanks to Jeremy Irons’ machiavellian manipulator, who is overly fond of that Evil Guy staple of silently watching proceedings from a shadowy location. The problem is that we only get to see their lives through the prism of the Abestergo clinic; we never get an insight into their personal issues or experience what really makes them tick. Consequently, the central thread feels like an emotional dead weight, despite the supposedly high stakes involved, as we’re never given enough reason to feel invested in the drama.
That being said, the visuals are inventively crafted and beautifully executed. The action is frenetic and ferocious, infusing fast-paced parkour with slick martial arts moves as the camera ricochets through the cramped streets of 15th Century Constantinople. The city’s ageing grandeur provides a refreshing contrast to the cold, clinical greys of the present day and also creates a breathtakingly dramatic backdrop for some awe-inspiring set-pieces, including the game’s signature Leap of Faith from a 125 foot platform. At times it’s wonderfully exhilarating to watch, yet these moments of far too infrequent to overcome the film’s many dramatic lulls.
While Assassin’s Creed is by no means the worst entry into the movies-based-on-games genre, thanks to some magnetic performances and spectacular visuals, but an overly po-faced tone and a plot that favours mystery over characterisation means it still falls short of its own lofty expectations.
Runtime: 115 mins approx
Director: Justin Kurzel
Screenwriters: Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage;
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson