Assassin's Creed (United States/France, 2016)December 22, 2016
Surely, this was going to be the one. That’s what gamers everywhere thought when the cast of Assassin’s Creed was announced. Two-time Oscar nominee Michael Fassbender. Oscar winners Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Irons. Plus Brendan Gleeson and Charlotte Rampling. Was it possible to get a better set of actors? Sadly, like far too many productions, “potential” didn’t translate into “quality.” Assassin’s Creed didn’t become the first based-on-a-video-game to breakthrough into cinematic greatness. Obtuse, narratively incoherent, and ultimately frustrating, it stands as another example of how hard it is to make a good mainstream movie out of a popular computer game.
The fundamental problem is the screenplay. I’m not qualified to judge whether the movie adequately represents the game but, regardless of how well it succeeds in that goal, it fails as a standalone piece of entertainment. Jumping back and forth in time from modern day to 1492, the story never grips the viewer and the characters are paper-thin. Even the fights fail to fully involve the viewer because they keep flipping between a traditional action point-of-view and a virtual perspective where we’re watching a (real) person fight shadows. No one can fault director Justin Kurzel (helmer of the 2015 Macbeth with Fassbender & Cotillard) when it comes to making Assassin’s Creed dynamic visual experience. His camera swoops and soars and he uses the score by his younger brother, Jed, to punch up key moments. (The music is effective, although a little in-your-face.) But the story…better luck next time.
The movie starts out in the 1980s with a scene that depicts a young boy, Cal Lynch, watching his father, dressed in assassin’s garb, murder his mother. Cut to 2016 - Cal, now a man (and played by Fassbender), awaits execution by lethal injection for a capital crime. Instead of dying, however, he is brought to a super-secret research facility in Spain presided over by two Templars - Alan Rikkin (Irons) and his scientist daughter Sophia (Cotillard). Their goal is to get Cal to use a machine called The Animus to experience the memories of an ancestor, an assassin named Aguilar, so he can pinpoint the location of the lost artifact The Apple of Eden.
Watching Assassin’s Creed, I realized the movie probably made more sense to those who had played the video games than those who had not. Although the Assassin’s Creed series is immensely popular, designing a major motion picture with such a limited audience is a mistake. The result feels like a cross between The Matrix and a second-rate Dan Brown novel. It isn’t so much that Assassin’s Creed is hard to follow (although it is - there’s not enough exposition and, when things are explained, they sound incredibly hokey) but that the transitions are clumsy and much of what happens seems irrelevant to the climax. The film ends on an unsatisfying note, presumably so that if box office performance warrants, a sequel can come along to pick up the pieces. [Note: The initial cut ran 140 minutes; maybe the additional half-hour would have added some badly needed coherence to the proceedings.]
As for all that talent - the unfortunate truth is that none of it is needed. A group of B-list actors could have done as good a job. Fassbender brings a powerful intensity to the dual role of Lynch and Aguilar but Cotillard seems miscast, never at home in a badly underwritten role. Jeremy Irons does what he often does when appearing in inferior films - mails it in. Brendan Gleeson and Charlotte Rampling are in so few scenes that their appearances could qualify as cameos. The real stars of Assassin’s Creed are the visuals. Set design and costumes are top-notch and the special effects are solid. It looks like a great deal of money was spent which makes the result - little more than a glorified video game tie-in - so depressing. The bottom line is the same with this movie as with nearly every other member of its sub-genre: don’t bother venturing out to see the movie; stay home and play the game instead.
Assassin's Creed (United States/France, 2016)
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams, Ariane Labed, Matias Varela
Screenplay: Michael Leslie and Adam Cooper & Bill Collage
Cinematography: Adam Arkapaw
Music: Jed Kurzel
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox