Being based on a video game does not automatically make your movie bad. 1993’s Super Mario Bros. may one day be viewed as a misunderstood classic. The point is that a movie can be completely awful on its own terms, regardless of its source material, and Assassin’s Creed is that movie.
Death row inmate Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender, The Light Between Oceans) is saved from execution by Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard, Allied) of Abstergo Industries. She and her father Alan (Jeremy Irons, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) want to use an Animus machine to tap into Callum’s DNA memory of being the assassin Aguilar so that they may lead them to the location of the Apple of Eden, which will enable them to overcome free will and end violence the world over.
One might expect there to be more to Assassin’s Creed than that, but that summary is essentially the entire movie. This is an exercise in franchise-building, setting up the pieces for a sequel in which actual events might presumably happen. The action is split between 1492 and 2016, but neither has enough attention lavished on them for a sense of either coherence or cohesion to occur. Australian director Justin Kurzel (Macbeth) has never touched a movie with this much money attached, but he was picked at producer Fassbender’s insistence. No director could have made this script, written by Michael Lesslie (Macbeth) from Adam Cooper and Bill Collage’s (Allegiant), palatable — it has no set pieces, and very few plot elements — interesting or otherwise. To be convoluted and empty is a feat, but an unenviable one.
Assassin’s Creed‘s shortcomings are not a result of its origins. While some parts of the movie look distinctly like they would be more fun to control than to watch, most modern video games have some sort of narrative to inform their action. Assassin’s Creed bothers with little more than barebones, and it chooses to express this in the least straightforward way imaginable: you see Fassbender in his Aguilar form stabbing a man and performing parkour escapes, interspersed with visibly unreadable action of Cal Fassbender performing the same actions on the Animus. All combat is shot through smoke bombs and sandstorms; if violence is being committed, it’s almost impossible to tell.
This is not in any capacity a film about performance: most everyone is going through the motions and some of Cotillard’s key lines are difficult to parse. Charlotte Rampling (TV’s London Spy) shows up so that she can be attached to the franchise, as does Michael Kenneth Williams (TV’s The Night Of), but otherwise one wonders how they wandered onto the sets.
Assassin’s Creed is a film that could have worked if any care had been applied to its construction. To take a director accustomed to smaller, artsier films and turn him into a journeyman is a crime in itself, but to make that journey such a jumbled and nonsensical one is a tragedy. Assassin’s Creed will do nothing to improve the name of video game adaptations, but it has this going for it: its screenwriters have already successfully killed one franchise, so maybe this can be the end of the line for another before it gets off the ground.
Assassin’s opens in Australian cinemas on January 1, 2017.
Directed by: Justin Kurzel.
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Michael K. Williams and Charlotte Rampling.