Starring: Michael Fassbender (X-Men: Apocalypse), Marion Cotillard (Inception), Jeremy Irons (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), Brendan Gleeson (The Guard), Michael K. Williams (Triple 9), Ariane Labed (The Lobster), Charlotte Rampling (45 Years)
Director: Justin Kurzel (Macbeth)
Writers: Michael Lesslie (Macbeth) and Adam Cooper & Bill Collage (Exodus: Gods and Kings)
Runtime: 1 hour 55 minutes
Release Date: 21 December (US), 1 January (UK)
The Assassin’s Creed video game franchise has certainly waned in recent years after countless sequels and spin-offs have run the formula dry, but the core concept remains fun and amongst the numerous entries are some of the landmark titles of the past ten years. Ubisoft let the franchise rest this year, but have instead gone ahead and thrown their hat into the film ring with a cinematic interpretation on the ongoing battle between the Assassins and the Templars. Now video games movies are still as taboo today as they’ve always been, but with the developers heavily involved and some great film talent guiding it, this should be the one to break the curse, right? The short answer: no. The long answer follows…
Assassin’s Creed makes a wise move by not directly adapting any of the games and instead tells a new side-story set within the canon of the franchise, with a few small but appreciated nods to the series’ past. It still follows the basic structure of the games (man forced to work for Templars, goes back into memories of ancestor, does a bunch of random quests to further plot and find Piece of Eden), but at least it can forge its own path and not have to cram ten hours of gameplay into a fifth of that experience. Unfortunately, what they’ve decided to focus on is every bad part of the game: the modern day story. A sizable majority of the film is spent in a cold research facility, and even when we are thrown into the assassin story during the Spanish Inquisition it still cuts back to the present constantly. Both plotlines are dull and underdeveloped, especially the past story because we are constantly thrown into it at random intervals with no indication of how much time has passed and what’s happened in between sequences; it’s like watching a bunch of random missions from the game with no context.
The film’s biggest crime, however, is that it’s dull. The games aren’t exactly action-packed thrill rides jam-packed with explosions and one-liners, but they have a sense of humour and revelled in the fun of being an assassin just as much as all the political intrigue and shadowy machinations. Here, any sense of joy has been sucked out and we are left with a cold, unappealing and po-faced slog that takes itself way too seriously. There are clearly even lines of dialogue that are meant to be witty but they are played completely straight; it’s almost like the director doesn’t understand the concept of humour. The pacing constantly drags as the movie weighs you down with painful scenes of characters prattling on about morality and control and power, and even when the action does kick it is all too brief and the cycle begins again. There are the occasional sparks of an interesting story underneath all the clutter, one that might have been entertaining if it actually played to the strengths of the game, but none of that is taken advantage of. By the halfway mark I was bored, and when the sequel-tease ending finally arrived I felt like I was being set free.
The protagonists of Assassin’s Creed can vary wildly in likability, with some endearing stars like Ezio or Edward but then there are some absolutely bland ones like Altair and Connor. The movie easily falls into the latter camp and Michael Fassbender is equally unappealing as both present-day captive Callum Lynch and Spanish assassin Aguilar. Lynch is given basically no personality, his backstory is barely touched upon, and his motivations fluctuate wildly throughout the movie due to a complete lack of clear character development; the man pretty much changes his allegiances on a dime. Fassbender’s performance does nothing to make the character stand out, his characterisation basically beginning and ending at a Christian Bale growl, and then there’s the bizarre scene where he starts wailing out Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” as he’s being dragged into the Animus. No, seriously, that’s a scene in the movie. He honestly makes original series protagonist Desmond Miles look positively fascinating by comparison. But at least Lynch has a vaguely discernable story and the skeleton of an arc, because Aguilar is pretty much a blank slate. We are told nothing about his past, he has no real motivation beyond his commitment to the creed, and there is no real resolution to what could barely be described his “story”. All he’s really there to do is engage in action sequences, but it’s hard to get invested when I don’t care about him or the dude experiencing these memories.
The supporting cast is a fantastic assemblage of talent on paper, but they are all given bland and underdeveloped characters to play so nobody comes out looking good. Marion Cotillard probably gets the most interesting role to play as a morally conflicted Templar scientist who doesn’t necessarily agree with all her order’s plans, but everything interesting about her just seems like it’s being saved for a sequel and Cotillard’s cold performances nixes any of the potential intrigue. Jeremy Irons does nothing but blather on about the beliefs of the Templars, Michael K. Williams is wasted as one of several other assassins held in the facility in another poorly developed subplot, Charlotte Rampling is completely pointless as the head of the Templars, and both Brendan Gleeson and Essie Davis are essentially extended cameos as Lynch’s parents. The only vaguely interesting character is Ariane Labed as Aguilar’s assassin buddy Maria, and that’s only because she looks cool and is I think the only character that smiles in the movie.
Justin Kurzel showed he could deliver on spectacle in his adaptation of Macbeth, and whilst there are some impressive moments in the all-too-brief action sequences in Assassin’s Creed they are hampered by numerous other problems. The cinematography is suitably cold and haunting in the present day sequences, but in the past it becomes overdone and jittery. There’s a lot of odd pans and shaky zooms, which completely doesn’t suit the acrobatic style of action the film has on display, obscuring what is clearly some impressive parkour and stunt work. The clumsy editing also ruins the immersion, constantly interrupting the flow of the action to cut back to the present so we can watch scientists watch Fassbender swatting around at air. Barring the film’s overdone reimagining of the Animus, the design of the sets, props and costumes is probably its only saving grace, perfectly capturing the aesthetic style of the games perfectly, but again it never takes advantage of it. One of the joys of the games was exploring a historic city and marvelling at the scale of it. Here, there’s never a moment that really lets you soak in the historic environments. Like everything else in the movie, the joy has been removed entirely.
Assassin’s Creed had everything it needed to be a great movie and makes every wrong decision it can. Not since Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four has so much promise been wasted on idiotic mistake after idiotic mistake. It takes a fascinating premise and makes it dull, it takes great actors and gives them nothing to work with, it takes thrilling action and makes it incomprehensible, and it takes a promising director like Kurzel and makes him look like an incompetent idiot. Say what you will about Warcraft, but it at least showed a passion for the material that this movie seems too afraid to even have. Most bad video games movies at least have the distinction of being hilariously bad. You can watch something like Street Fighter or Super Mario Bros. and laugh at their ineptitude. Assassin’s Creed is far too boring and lifeless to do that with. If Ubisoft thinks this is good enough to start thinking about doing more adaptations of their properties, then they are basically just throwing their money away.
FINAL VERDICT: 3/10