Assassin’s Creed is a hard film to talk about. How do you describe to someone what a puzzle looks like when it’s poured out over a table? It is that much of a mess, but in the same vein, all the pieces are there. The foundation of intrigue and fundamentals of filmmaking are there, but none of it ever quite assembles into anything more than an incoherent jumble of disparate components.
You can even see it in the production side of the project. Justin Kurzel directs after being nominated for two substantial awards for last year’s Macbeth, which is a scant 100 or so years apart from period half of Assassin’s Creed‘s 1491 Madrid. The aesthetics and immersive milieu of the setting are promising, especially the inclusion of his returning collaborating stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, two names you’d otherwise would be beyond taking a risk on a video game film adaption.
The movie event attempts to hone its focus in on these two immense talents, wrapping its story around Fassbender’s Assassin descendent Callum Lynch and Cotillard’s Templar scientist and Animus project lead Sophia Rikkin. Having witnessed his father in Assassin garb kill mother when he was a child, Callum has been on the run ever since, eventually landing on death row for murder. And to the rest of the world, he dies at his execution, but the truth is Sophia whisks him away to an Abstergo facility to shove him into the genetic memory-recalling device known as the Animus to find the godlike Apple of Eden artifact to rid the world of free will.
If you can’t tell, there’s a lot there. At almost every step of the movie, almost in spite of its nimble cloaked killers, it stumbles under the weight of everything it wants to do but can’t quite get done. It’s a movie with eyes far bigger than its stomach, folding in the old Assassins order with the modern remnants facing off against the highly motivated and empowered Templars of both ages with a bunch of personal conflicts between Sophia, her Templar leader father Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), Callum, his Assassin father (Brendan Gleeson), and the similarly imprisoned-but-not-imprisoned Assassins at the facility.
But on the other side of the coin, its hard to fault such ambition; such consignment is the basis of good storytelling. Everyone has a clear and absolute motivation. (Admittedly and oddly, Callum’s is the weakest of the bunch.) Sophia’s dedication to science and the Templars comes to blows over Callum’s involvement as pressures from her father are filtered through his fear of failure on the overarching goal of the secret society, which is further fueled by the presiding Elders’ desire to halt funding of the Animus project. Look at that tremendous flow of wants and needs. That’s textbook narrative construction.
Yet it just can’t quite ever find the time to fully explore any of it, either our of a bizarre lack of confidence or all too real lack of time. And as likely as the latter is (it was hard to keep up despite having played every Assassin’s Creed game to date), the former has evidence backing it. You can see it when it is noncommittal towards the prodigious internal conflict of feelings in Callum towards his father and this newly discovered lineage, or the modern day Assassins that emerge and their graceless insertion into the movie. Stories come and go like dandelions giving in to every passing breeze, especially with the wholly uninformed subplots of the Assassins and Templars within Callum’s Animus excursions.
That eerie sensation of shaky footing is more easily visible in the actual filming of the movie. Adam Arkapaw returns as Kurzel’s cinematographer and you can see why he has several awards under his belt (including two Emmys) in several shots. There’s one stupendous one where Irons and Fassbender have a rather intense chat under an animated ceiling of shadowy birds, leering under Irons with a distinct Dutch angle that paints this antagonist against a visual parallel of this disregard for reality both in terms of his words and the Animus. But it comes and goes so quick that it feels like there was a fear the broader audience in search of an action-heavy video game movie wouldn’t find palatable.
It’s a hard feeling to loose from the viewing. Things move quickly enough as if it were afraid staying still too long would allow the audience to see the cracks when it should slow down and breath in the vast talents at its disposal. Not only are there two award-winning pairs at the helm with Kurzel and Arkapaw behind the camera and Cotillard and Fassbender in front of it but Irons as the big bad; Gleeson lending his sizable prowess to what amounts to a cameo; Michael K. Williams doing his usual powerful, menacing thing; and Charlotte Rampling emerging every once in a while to fill out the background despite her storied and trophy-covered filmography.
They all totally nail their roles. They rouse emotion out of scenes where there otherwise would be none, doing the same for drama as the best comedians do for jokes and laughs. How can they inform every interaction with emotion and reason and motivation? These actors are swinging so far above the weight of this movie, it’s damn near paralytic.
The greatest success of the film is even found in these moments. They imbue weight into things we otherwise took for granted in the video games. Consider the idea of full synchronization, the state in which the present day Animus user is fully matching with his genetic memories of his ancestor as the GLaDOS-looking device whips his body around to sync up his motions with the recreation of the past. It was pretty much a rating system that everyone ignored playing through the games’ missions, but in the film, it’s an actually fulfilling and ultimately frightening thing to witness and consider the consequences of.
And the action sequences seem to fulfill the promise of the gameplay premise, a promise the games never quite made good on. We are witnessing masters of their deadly art in motion, improvising and fully utilizing their wits and their environment to win the day. Players never get that sensation, instead trying not to accidentally run up walls and mashing counterattack buttons in decidedly static combat arenas. Sure, later titles addressed these and the film pretty much ignores the stealth part of being an Assassin, but the divide is still extraordinarily remarkable.
Action is shot rather well, too, here in the movie. The first set piece is especially noteworthy for being coherent and digestible while still ripping through gags at a breakneck pace. It’s a collection of great action fundamentals that many modern movies simply and foolishly ignore. The rest of the film struggles to match the same level of technical success, but its at least all exciting and entertaining. (One significant tragedy, however, is the CG bastardization of what is one of the greatest stunts of recent history, covering this tremendous act with yellow and brown dust.)
Even after all that, though, you can’t completely fault Assassin’s Creed. It has ambition and, more notably, brings to fruition many of its lofty goals. But that’s in the face of innumerable falls and stumbles that, if not for the substantially talented cast and production crew, would have fallen flat on its face and never gotten back up. Instead, it hobbles along to the finish line and even manages to conjure up some clear-cut victories along the way. It’s hard to say if it will win over any fans to the franchise, but it certainly won’t lose any.
Final Score: 6 out of 10