Assassin’s Creed (2016) Review

assassins-creed-posterSomeday, they’ll make a good videogame movie. By the law of averages, it has to happen some time, right? While Assassin’s Creed was in production, it was easy to hope that this might be the one. It had a lot of things going for it: a promising young director at the helm in Justin Kurzel, some usually reliable stars in Michael Fassbender and Jeremy Irons, and the freedom to craft a narrative tailor-made for film thanks to it not being a direct adaptation of any of the games. But it just goes to show, the best ingredients in the world can still make a bad meal.

Assassin’s Creed is an over-ambitious, murky bore. Rather than be content to deliver what the games deliver, that being period swashbuckling adventure, the film adaptation shoots for the moon and tries to be something “more”. A noble pursuit in theory, but Kurzel’s ambitions hamstring the film, turning what should have been a fun adventure into a moody mess that never seems comfortable in its own skin.

Fassbender plays Callum Lynch, a death row inmate who is seemingly executed, only to find himself alive and in the custody of a mysterious corporate entity. Callum, it seems, is the descendant of Aguilar, a member of the shadowy Brotherhood of Assassins who lived during the Spanish Civil War. The Assassins and their enemies the Templars fought over various ancient and powerful artifacts, one of which, the Apple of Eden, came into the possession of Aguilar. Now Callum’s jailers, the modern-day form of the Templars, have devised a way to finally uncover the Apple’s location: plug Callum into the Animus, a machine that unlocks his genetic memories of his former life.

The Assassin’s Creed movie suffers from that rarer of faults, the one some may argue isn’t even a fault at all: over-ambition. While the film could have been content to deliver what the games do: excitement and fun in an interesting period setting, it tries to elevate the material to something more. Which again is a fine goal in theory, but in practice means we have an Assassin’s Creed movie on our hands which isn’t all that interested in any of the things the Assassin’s Creed games are known for.

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While the games realized a few years ago that no one is interested in spending time with some clueless git wandering around a monochromatic facility when they could be having adventures and sword fights, the film seems to find all that fun stuff beneath it. We spend the majority of the film in the present with Callum and the minimum possible amount of time in the past where all the entertaining stuff is happening. And not only are we stuck in the present most of the time, but a present draped in a very deliberate yet alienating style that seems intent on being “arty” but leads to a deeply dissatisfying experience. The dialogue feels stiff and non-natural, with Fassbender and his co-stars frequently talking -at- each other rather than -to- each other, doling out important sounding lines in reverent tones that cover up the fact that none of it means anything. The stakes and internal logic are hazy at best, with character motivations never becoming clear to the degree you want them to. Everything is under-lit and moodily shot, but in a way that makes any sense of location go out the window.

And sadly, that doesn’t get better in the film’s brief period scenes. With a better editor, Assassin’s Creed might have at least delivered some fun action set pieces, but the incredibly rapid-fire editing means that any and all fight scenes quickly become confusing blurs. There’s no flow to anything, no ability to appreciate the rhythm of the fight or the choreography. We never get a sense of geography, on a large or small scale. Where the characters are in a given scene in relation to each other and where that location is in relation to other locations isn’t something the film seems concerned with, so we constantly spend the action scenes trying to decipher what’s going on and where. One minute Aguilar is sword fighting in a dimly lit room, then he’s grabbed a polearm in between shots, then he’s dropped through a hole in the floor we never knew was there and into a sewer, then he’s on a bridge, and how the A to B to C of any of it works is anyone’s guess.

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The film’s partial period setting thus becomes almost irrelevant. Apart from a few key scenes, we never get a feel for its 15th Spanish setting. The period scenes could practically have been in Rome or Ancient Egypt just by changing a few backdrops. Because that’s ultimately what the period setting is: a backdrop. It’s a CGI vista we fly through before spending the rest of the sequence in a nondescript room or bouncing off rooftops too quick to appreciate the locale.

None of this seems unintentional, by the way. There’s the prevailing sense that all of Assassin’s Creed‘s faults are by intention, and it isn’t hard to see what the film is going for: less of a light action adventure film and more of a moody, artful, thinker with some action sprinkled in. So it’s less of a problem of incompetence and more of an entirely wrong-headed approach for this kind of material. It’s the same approach that people loved when applied to Chris Nolan’s Batman movies, and it fails for the same reason: in seeking to elevate the material it leaves behind something essential. A sense of identity, perhaps, or comfort in telling a story that’s ultimately juvenile and commercial.

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It speaks to a larger ongoing problem in this kind of adaptation that’s propped up in Batman, Daredevil, Godzilla, Fantastic Four and countless others: an almost steadfast refusal to embrace in what drew people to the franchise in question in the first place. Nobody went to Godzilla to see Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s personality-devoid soldier character, they went to see giant monsters beating the crap out of each other. And yet, that film cut away from the giant angry lizard on the poster whenever it could, under the mistaken apprehension that the audience wasn’t all that interested in it. The much-lauded Daredevil Netflix series similarly doesn’t actually have much in the way of superhero antics, instead delivering a (sub-par) crime series where a superhero occasionally shows up. It’s even happening overseas, with the last Japanese-made Godzilla movie focusing more on Japan’s bureaucratic mechanisms than Godzilla itself.

And now we have an Assassin’s Creed movie where the assassin-ing and creed-ing take a back seat to a bored-looking Fassbender trading wooden dialogue with his co-stars in a succession of blue rooms, as if anyone were remotely interested in seeing that. Even when the period action does kick-in, it’s continually under-cut by cuts back to Fassbender’s modern-day character strapped into an absurd mechanism wrenching him around like a kid with an action figure. It’s ok, that fight scene wasn’t all that interesting, show us with the shirtless man and the giant robot arm are doing, by all means.

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Of course the danger in the opposite tactic is that you wind up with Batman and Robin, an embarrassing camp-fest that dives headfirst into the wackier aspects of its source material with no mind at all to presenting something intelligent and stimulating. What we need is a middle-ground, a movie that’s maturely and intelligently presented but is still comfortable being what it was meant to be.

Assassin’s Creed isn’t that movie. Assassin’s Creed wants to be something “more” than just a video game adaptation, but the problem with that approach is that the people who came here FOR a video game adaptation will feel neglected, and the people looking for high-brow intelligent cinema wouldn’t be caught dead in a video game movie. And the ones who do go won’t find anything all that stimulating underneath the moody atmosphere and dim lighting.

Assassin’s Creed is, at the very least, ambitious. It tries something new, taking a leap of faith not unlike the signature visual of the game. But unfortunately in this case, it leapt into entirely the wrong hay-bale, and hit a few buttresses on the way down.

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