Assassin’s Creed Review
Directed By: Justin Kurzel
Written By: Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage; Based on the Ubisoft video game series
Runtime: 115 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some fantasy action violence
Michael Fassbender – Cal Lynch / Aguilar de Nerha
Marion Cotillard – Sofia Rikkin
Jeremy Irons – Alan Rikkin
Brendan Gleeson – Joseph Lynch
Charlotte Rampling – Ellen Kaye
Michael K. Williams – Moussa
Ariane Labed – Maria
Denis Ménochet – McGowen
Khalid Abdalla – Sultan Muhammad XII
Essie Davis – Mary Lynch
First, let’s just get this out of the way quickly. Is the long-awaited Assassin’s Creed movie the film based on a popular video game franchise that finally breaks the mold and delivers a great movie based on a hit game series? Is this the movie that finally proves a fantastic cinematic adaptation of a beloved game franchise with an amazing concept is possible? The answer is a curt no. If you are looking for the film that finally proves that quality “video game movies” can be a thing, you aren’t going to find it in Assassin’s Creed.
The problem with adapting a video game as a feature-length, theatrical movie, even if the game has an epic and cinematic style, is that video games offer an experience that movies do not. In many ways, video games such as Assassin’s Creed are about empowering gamers. Gamers who play Assassin’s Creed are transported into a world where scientists have figured out a way to tap into our genetic memories. In the world of Assassin’s Creed, players are living through the genetic memories of their ancestors and transported into exotic time periods we could only experience in textbooks. The games are about becoming an elite Assassin in a famous historical time period. Whether it’s the Crusades, the French Revolution or the American Revolutionary War, you get to be a part of that history and interact with real-life historical figures. The Assassin characters and historical figures are actually part of an ancient war between the Assassin Brotherhood and the Order of the Knights Templar. That is the great thing about video games. Even though it’s a virtual setting, the player becomes that Assassin. The players are living out those memories and becoming a part of history. The Legend of Zelda? The reason Link is usually such a blank slate is because Link is a proxy for the player. Link doesn’t need a voice because the player creates that voice. Look at Uncharted. Those games have a lot of cinematic qualities. They are basically Indiana Jones in video game form. The brilliance of the Uncharted games lies in how they enable players to become an Indiana Jones-like character in big adventures. The player is carries out the daring feats of Nathan Drake. That can be very empowering in the interactivity in playing a video game. When a video game turns into a film, that interactivity and sense of player empowerment are removed. Not to mention, the longer plots much be boiled down into a two-hour running time.
Unfortunately, Assassin’s Creed is not even a valiant effort. It’s a highly misguided one. The plot is more focused on the contemporary setting involving death row inmate Callum Lynch (Fassbender). After Abstergo gives Lynch a fugazi execution, Lynch is spirited off to an Abstergo facility in Madrid, Spain. There, Lynch meets Dr. Sofia Rikkin and her father, ranking Templar Order member Alan Rikkin (Irons). Lynch’s lineage has been traced all the way back to an Assassin Brotherhood member, Aguilar de Nerha, in 15th-century Spain. Sofia wants to plug Lynch into the Animus, which displays the genetic memories of Aguilar. Why? It is believed that Aguilar possesses information regarding the last known location of the Apple of Eden. The Apple of Eden is an ancient artifact that controls humanity’s free will. Sofia believes free will is the cause of mankind’s violence and aggression, which needs to be quashed. So, she wants to find the Apple of Eden to “cure violence.” Of course, this is the Templar Order, and they just want the Apple of Eden to take over the world. Lynch has traumatic memories of his youth, learning that his father (Gleeson) was an Assassin, who inexplicably killed Callum’s mother. As a result, Lynch has a pretty negative view of the Brotherhood. So, he resolves to help Abstergo in exchange for his freedom and to ultimately destroy the Brotherhood. However, there are other members of the Brotherhood held captive at the Abstergo facility, and they do not want the Apple of Eden to be discovered. Also, Jeremy Irons’ character thinks the Assassin Brotherhood’s name is actually the Assassin’s Creed, which is quite unintentionally humorous. That’s one way to get the titular line in the movie.
Without having seen director Justin Kurzel’s previous efforts, his style here contains quite a bit of feigned bravado. There’s a facade of grandiosity to the film in that Kurzel seems to think both his direction and material are deeper and more meaningful than they actually are. Unfortunately, the script is weak, and the direction helps very little. Kurzel ruins a great deal of the movie with a dreary color palette. Everything looks to be stuck under a dreary haze. Nothing looks properly lit. The 15th century scenes are all heavily obscured, usually by hefty amounts of dust, clouds, fog and smoke. An incessant, constant glare permeates the film. It seems all the 15th century scenes are set at the same time — when the sun is just about to rise. What could be impressive production and set work is all too often hard to make out. It’s difficult to take in any of the larger sets or what could be impressive digital effects work because Kurzel has shot everything in such a lugubrious fashion.
The acting scenes are all incredibly awkward and painfully dull, which is a shame when you have a cast that’s filled with talented thespians such as Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Michael Fassbender, Charlotte Rampling and Brendan Gleeson. Some of these actors have won Academy Awards, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that from watching them here. Cotillard is saddled with an awful accent that she can’t keep straight from scene-to-scene. Credit to Cotillard for trying to hide her French accent, but she does a poor job of doing so. The accent rule should be: If you can’t pull it off convincingly, then just drop it; anachronisms be damned. It sounds like Cotillard was trying to adopt a British accent or a flat American one, but sometimes it sounds like she’s trying to sound Irish. Other times, her French accent slips through. If it sounds like harping, the point here is that a bad accents can be very distracting in a film. There is no interesting character development to speak of throughout the film. Nothing is ever really learned about Lynch or Aguilar. The Aguilar scenes are only reserved for when the movie needs a chase or action scene thrown in to break up the story’s general dull sense of monotony. In the games, the historical storylines were the backbones of the narrative. Here, the scenes in the 15th century are nothing more than action-scene fodder.
There isn’t a single memorable performance out of a cast filled with talented acting powerhouses. The worst part is that everyone in Assassin’s Creed speaks in hushed, whispered tones. Most of the lines are muttered throughout the movie, and the main characters only have a handful of discernible lines. It seems to some degree that Kurzel fancies himself as an auteur and an artiste by making choices such as this. One could argue that Kurzel’s deliberate choice to use subtitles with all the actors speaking Spanish for all the 15th century scenes is a bold, creative choice for a movie such as this. However, that does not really serve the narrative in a movie that’s meant to bring the Assassin’s Creed franchise to the screen. Not to mention, the movie is set in a universe where the Animus was programmed to translate the old languages into English. So, there’s already a narrative out for characters speaking contemporary English in a past setting.
Equally ridiculous throughout the script is the dumb Abstergo staff. Other members of the Brotherhood are also imprisoned at the Abstergo facility. They are highly skilled and completely in their right minds. However, they are allowed to freely roam around wherever they want. At one point, the Assassins even stage a mild riot to get at Callum as they fear he could blow the location of the Apple of Eden. A guard gets killed in the process. In addition, the Assassins are still allowed to roam around completely free, with easy access to functioning weapons and artifacts. What else? The Abstergo guards are heavily armed to the teeth with…batons and stun guns. Let’s see, Abstergo Industries, which is a front for the Order of the Knights Templar, is going to imprison a bunch of members of the Assassin Brotherhood. They are all being kept in the same place and allowed to roam around freely. You have a bunch of guards onsite at this facility, and there are absolutely no guns. Does Madrid, Spain have really strict gun laws? Does that even matter considering all the activities at this Abstergo facility are illegal? So, when Murphy’s Law strikes at Abstergo, the guards have naught to defend themselves with but sticks.
Fassbender’s Lynch is nothing more than a cipher to move the plot along. He’s introduced in his adulthood on death row. It’s later revealed he was on death row for killing a “pimp.” That’s it. The film tells us he’s violent and has an anger issue, but he never actually demonstrates this. So right there, the film breaks the rule of “show, don’t tell.” Early on, the narrative establishes that Lynch, in his youth, was a bit of a kooky daredevil and attempted to pull off some crazy bike jumps off of buildings. Is it the Assassin Order in his blood? None of the story about Lynch’s fearless, daredevil attitude is developed later in the film. Fassbender is a great actor, but he provides literally nothing as a character to latch onto in the role of Callum Lynch, or when he plays Aguilar for that matter. Aguilar is even less of a character than Callum Lynch.
Cotillard’s Sofia Rikkin is a horribly written character who constantly changes her attitude at the drop of a hat. She seems to have deluded herself into believing the cause of the Knights Templar is just because the violence of mankind is a disease that needs to be cured. She’s a scientist for Abstergo. Rikkin seems to be aware of the Knights Templar and Templar’s council of elders. She has worked with this organization for years. Her father is a high-ranking member, and he has never dishonest with her about what the Templar wants. Yet, Rikkin seems confused by the order’s purpose in wanting to obtain the Apple of Eden. Her loyalties seem to change several times in the final act for no apparent reason, and her actions are mind-boggling.
The musical score by Jed Kurzel is a lot of chaotic cacophony. The score has a great deal of big, banging drums. There’s copious percussion, but none of it sounds good. The score struggles to sound epic, but it never succeeds. The music never really adopts any type of identifiable theme or melodies with really strong, epic moments. There’s always something off about the music. It’s almost like a theatrical score version of really bad dubstep.
Now would be a good time to address the film’s version of the Animus. The Animus has been altered from a deep-dive virtual reality machine into a big, robotic arm that Lynch is attached to. There are projectors set up around the new Animus that can somehow project some rough images of what is happening in the memories of Aguilar. The new Animus is narratively asinine. In the film, the Animus has its user jumping around and mimicking the actions of his genetic ancestor. It makes absolutely no sense. Why is it important that Abstergo, or the audience for that matter, see Lynch jumping and flailing around in a robotic arm device? That’s not even the worst part. Sofia and Abstergo force Lynch to wear Aguilar’s still functioning hidden blade gauntlets while he’s in the Animus. Technically, Lynch is a prisoner of Abstergo. Him syncing with Aguilar’s memories also makes him more dangerous. So, why give a prisoner functioning Assassin weapons while he’s plugged into the Animus? OK, maybe the gauntlets somehow help with the memory sync. One, how is that possible? Two, why not at least remove the blades from the gauntlets? It’s moronic.
So, if fans were hoping that Assassin’s Creed would finally prove that a great video game series can become a great movie, they are going to have to keep hoping for a while longer. The crew behind Assassin’s Creed may work in the dark, but they are not serving the light. Assassins they are not.