A film review by Craig J. Koban December 30, 2016


2016, PG-13, 115 mins.


Michael Fassbender as Callum Lynch / Aguilar  /  Marion Cotillard as Dr. Sophia Rikkin  /  Michael Kenneth Williams as Moussa  /  Brendan Gleeson as Joseph  /  Jeremy Irons as Alan Rikkin  /  Ariane Labed as Maria  /  Callum Turner as Nathan  /  Denis Ménochet as Abstergo Güvenlik Müdürü  /  Matias Varela as Emir  /  Brian Gleeson as Young Joseph

Directed by Justin Kurzel  /  Written by Adam Cooper, Bill Collage and Michael Lesslie


It's not that ASSASSIN'S CREED is a bad or incompetent film, nor is it lacking in definitive and proven talent in front of and behind the camera.  

No, this latest in an awfully long lineage of wrongheaded video game to movie adaptations suffers greatly in its inability to make me care for anyone or anything in its story.  

Based on the massively popular - and sometimes notoriously glitchtastic - action adventure game series from Ubisoft -  ASSASSIN'S CREED has a bona fide artist helming it all in director Justin Kurzel (see last year's MACBETH for proof of that) and multiple Oscar nominated actors spearheading the charge (like Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, both of whom also appeared in MACBETH).  The pieces are in place here for a remarkably promising film, but the results are so emotionally cold and dramatically distancing that I had to remind myself that what happened in its narrative...mattered. 

I'm a lifelong video game-aholic.  It's my second major love affair outside of the cinema.  I'm also not one of those pompous windbag elitist film critics that don't believe that a video game can indeed be art.  That would be silly.  There's ample and tremendous artistry that has gone into the multiple iterations of the ASSASSIN'S CREED video games series and, yes, this film, if anything, is an unqualified technical masterpiece at times.  Yet, even the prettiest video games can be a slog to play through with shoddy storytelling that doesn't make you give a hoot, which is precisely what's wrong with this big budget silver screen version.  There's simply no joyous life or energy in modest dosages on display here: Kurzel's film takes itself as seriously as a proverbial heart attack.  The relentless tonal bleakness in ASSASSIN'S CREED is mightily off-putting throughout, especially considering its fantastical - and let's be honest, silly -  premise.  This film isn't as mindlessly soulless as, say, the recent HITMAN: AGENT 47 from last year (also based on a video game), but it most assuredly lacks heart. 



The film opens with a considerable amount of expositional goobledygook presented on obligatory white text on a black screen that explains an ageless war between the Knights Templar and the Assassin's Creed over an artifact called "The Apple of Eden" (yes, that Eden), which the Knights believe contains the genetic blueprint for free will and possession of it, in turn, will allow for them to quickly eradicate violence on the planet (yeah, I'm still trying to figure this one out).  The problem for the Knights Templar is they have no idea where in the hell the Apple of Eden is, which makes their massive global plan to eliminate worldwide violence all the more challenging.  It appears, though, that the Knights Templar are able to deduce when the object was last seen...in 15th Century Spain and in the hands on one particular assassin. 

The film also introduces us to death row inmate Cal Lynch (a distractingly monotone Fassbender) that's about to be executed via lethal injection for his murderous crimes.  Yet, instead of dying he's secretly recruited by a group of scientists with intimate ties to the Knights Templar, Alan Rikkan (an utterly wasted Jeremy Irons) and his daughter Sophia (Cotillard, equally squandered).  They have a somewhat laughably complex scheme that involves Cal securing the location of the Apple of Eden: They will connect him to a massive virtual reality-like device that can whisk his consciousness back in time and into the mind and body of his distant ancestor, who was the afforementioned 15th Century assassin that has ties to the location of the Apple of Eden (think QUANTUM LEAP meets THE MATRIX).  Cal isn't technically time traveling in corporal form, but rather is leaping into spirit of his ancestor and re-living his memories.   

Now, this premise is, as stated, ludicrous, but it's also engagingly inventive and kind of ingenious.  On a positive, the mythology of the ASSASSIN'S CREED video game series is densely ambitious, which makes any attempt to appropriate it for movie consumption all the more daunting.  Kurzel, if anything, seems enthusiastically equal to the task and takes laborious pains to makes sure that his film adaptation is a visual marvel to behold.  Simply put, this film looks stupendous, especially the sequences in the distant past, which features Fassbender inhabiting his centuries old relative in sequence after sequence that's positively dripping with sumptuous period detail.  I also appreciated the fact that all of these moments in Spain of the late 1400's are done in Spanish, which certainly aids the film's stark verisimilitude.  Every time ASSASSIN'S CREED ventures into the past its stunningly engaging. 

Everything else built around these scenes, however,  fall resoundingly flat.  There's simply no one that commanded nor deserved my rooting interest in the story, especially the main "hero" Cal, who is a convicted murderer, a plot point that's frequently and conveniently not adequately dealt with.  This is also not assisted by Fassbender's uncharacteristically flat and stilted performance that's so relatively charm free that you're left kind of bewildered as to why an actor of his acclaimed stature saw this as a savory part to inhabit (Fassbender inexplicably serves as producer here too).  Cotillard fares no better in a larger underwritten part...and ditto for Irons, who's ostensibly called upon to deliver solemn line readings and look sinister in his dark turtle necked attire.  For as technically astounding as ASSASSIN'S CREED is as an impressive odyssey of awe inspiring sights, it's kind of a failure at employing its A-grade talent to their fullest.  None of these performers appear emotionally invested at all in their respected characters.  The people that populate this film are mechanical engines that are designed to dispense key plot details...and very little else of substance.   

That, and the film's MacGuffin of the Apple of Eden is nonsensical hooey.  The script never fully explains what this ancient apple does, how it contains the "genetic blueprint to human free will," or how it can even be wielded (and by whom) to eradicate humanity's free will to curtail blood-lusting violence everywhere.  All in all, it's a simplistically rendered item that everyone wants that figures into everyone's agendas.  ASSASSIN'S CREED really becomes unglued during its third act, during which time its science fiction meets faux history yarn seems to be spending an awful lot of time serving as a lead in to future franchise installments to come without even bothering to deliver an exciting and fully cohesive first film with some semblance of a beginning, middle, and end.  Why do so many films as of late make this categorical creative blunder of being too forward thinking and not focusing in on the now?  

ASSASSIN'S CREED, to be fair, is one of the most impressive looking video game adaptations that I've ever seen.  Kurzel, as demonstrated to bravura effect in MACBETH, can be a bona fide painter with his camera.  Unfortunately and rather depressingly, ASSASSIN'S CREED is a sumptuously dazzling exercise in technical filmmaking craft that's kind of D.O.A. in terms of story and characters.  When the film is not being incessantly convoluted with its own wobbly world building, it's glaringly unsuccessful at populating its narrative with personas that have weight and consequence.  I felt like I was being annoyingly and coldly held back at an arm's distance from becoming fully enraptured in this unique world.  The finest video games that I've played were, for lack of a better word, fun.  ASSASSIN'S CREED is so dour and morose that it forgets to have fun.   


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