The history of video game film adaptations is a troubled one. The best of them manage to be mildly entertaining popcorn flicks, but even those often feature terrible dialogue and stories slavishly devoted to the source material. Into this troubled tradition steps Assassin’s Creed, based on the long-running mega-franchise by Ubisoft. The film boasts an impressive cast and crew — director Justin Kurzel, along with leads Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, recently made an acclaimed adaptation of Macbeth — but is that enough to lift it above the dreadful reputation of video game movies?
For those unfamiliar with the dense lore of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, the film lays out the general premise right at the beginning. For hundreds of years, an organization known as the Knights Templar have been searching for mythical tokens of Eden, in this case the Apple of Eden, which will allow them to rule the world. The only opposing force are the Assassins, hooded killers with a penchant for parkour who, despite all their talk of shadows, do most of their killing in broad daylight. In order to discover the location of the Apple, the modern day Templars kidnap a prisoner named Callum Lynch (Fassbender) and take him to a secret facility that houses a machine called the Animus. The device taps into the genetic memory of the user’s DNA, allowing them to live out the memories of their ancestors (in this case, Callum’s 15th century assassin forefather, Aguilar).
The film’s greatest weapon by far is its sterling cast.
If this all seems a bit confusing to those who haven’t spent hours upon hours playing the game series, never fear. The movie explains the backstory often and at length, to the point that we the audience almost feel like we’ve wandered into a history lecture given by a conspiracy theorist.
Assassin’s Creed is essentially two films that bleed into each other. One is a sci-fi story in which Callum is imprisoned in the gray halls of the Templar pharmaceutical company, Abstergo. The other is a rollicking adventure smack dab in the middle of the Spanish Inquisition. The latter ends up being the most fun, but unfortunately it comprises no more than a third of the film.
Kurzel’s Macbeth drew praise for its striking visuals, and the Spanish storyline allows him to flaunt his talents, revealing ancient Spain in shades of deep red. One particular scene, in which the king, queen, and leaders of the Inquisition gather for an execution, is fantastically disturbing, looking almost like a medieval painting of hell.
The action sequences are also exciting, as Aguilar and his fellow Assassins sprint across rooftops, tumble down alleyways, and kill Templar in brutally efficient ways. Occasional flourishes, like a first-person shot of a crossbow firing, add some style. And most remarkably for a mainstream film, the dialogue in these scenes is entirely in Spanish, adding a surprising level of authenticity to a story about secret societies fighting over a magic token. Throughout these sequences, you can see glimmers of the grand adventure Kurzel could have crafted, had he focused on the events of 1492.
Sadly, as most of the film is stuck in the drab present of Abstergo’s blue-gray laboratories, Assassin’s Creed never really takes flight. Although the Animus induces some ghostly hallucinations in Callum, the film never does anything too visually impressive with them.
The film’s greatest weapon by far is its sterling cast. Fassbender brings a surly charm to his performance as Callum, and pulls double-duty as the more taciturn Aguilar. He is the type of actor who can move you with a smirk or a snarl without much help from a script, which is especially useful in this case. Aguilar is a simple, if understandable hero, while Callum has a tragic backstory which the film attempts to flesh out, but, as with most video game characters, there’s not much compelling drama to explore there.
Marion Cotillard also makes the best of what she is given as Sophia Rikkin, the engineer behind the Animus project. She believes the Apple will lead to a world without violence, and Cotillard’s eyes glimmer with conviction even as her speeches about the power of science grow increasingly ridiculous. Sophia is Callum’s most frequent point of contact, and Fassbender and Cotillard crackle on screen together.
Assassin’s Creed is essentially two films that bleed into each other.
Venerable character actor Jeremy Irons also turns in a professional performance as Sophia’s father, Alan, who runs Abstergo. As a sort of middle manager under the Templar leadership, Alan is an affable villain, and Irons brings his usual gravitas to the proceedings.
Utterly wasted in the role of Haitian Assassin Moussa is Michael K. Williams who, aside from a couple of flat jokes, does not have much to do. There are numerous other Assassins in the facility with Callum and Moussa, too, but one of the unfortunate consequences of trying to tell two stories in one film is that many of the characters are left totally undeveloped.
Will fans of the Assassin’s Creed games enjoy this first film outing? Possibly. The film looks very good, and the absurdly overqualified cast makes the writing feel more profound than it is. In fact, you could argue that Assassin’s Creed is the best movie adaptation of a video game in recent history; the film leaps gracefully above one of the lowest bars in cinema.
Unfortunately, that’s still not much of a compliment. Viewers not already invested in the Assassin’s Creed lore may well find this film a convoluted slog with only occasional thrills to hold their interest.