Assassin's Creed - Review: Missed its Mark
Do you know what the definition of insanity is? Of course, you do; movies & TV shows quote it all the time..... but for anyone of short memory, it’s doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different outcome. I’ve often wondered if that model can really be applied to people that keep making movies based on video games because in one way, they’ll always fail yet in another, they’ll surely succeed. Without fail, they fail in their adaptation. You can’t compress the vast story of a 20-hour game into a 2-hour movie and as such, the movie will always feel rushed or incomplete. They can recreate visuals, they can cast actors for decent representations of characters but they can never recapture the game itself. So they keep thinking they’ll get it right only to fail; thus insanity. Yet they succeed. Why? Because even in being bad, they make huge amounts of money tapping into a pre-existing fan base willing to take a chance despite knowing they’ll probably be disappointed (so does that make us insane?). Last year, Warcraft’s poor outing still raked in over 2 ½ times its budget at £433m. Even smaller offerings like 2007's Hitman film made a $100m a $24m budget. They keep doing well because we believe that one day that one film will finally get it right. To show the world that it can be done. Every time a new release comes around, the buzz restarts. This January’s new player is Assassin’s Creed but sadly, it’s no game changer.
The death row criminal Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender – X-Men, Steve Jobs) is saved by Abstergo Industries because his bloodline descends back to the Assassin’s Creed of the Spanish Inquisition. Using their Animus technology they make him relive his ancestor’s memories to locate a sacred artifact that will help them change the world.
What Assassin's Creed boils down to is essentially Sucker Punch with less mascara as Callum is periodically immersed into the his past via a lot of exaggerated tech throughout the film. This similarly hits the same problem of Zack Synder’s guns, girls and zombie Nazi affair as much of the material in between feels like filler compared to the vastly more interesting visuals and setting of 15th century Spain at civil war. The flashback/regression sequences are easily the highlight of the film and the strongest area of game adaptation we see the old Fassbender (Aguilar de Nerha) and crew in action from stealthy infiltration, elegant and graceful combat techniques and of course, some city-traversing parkour. The action is frequently fast-paced with many stunning moments, the locations and scenarios vary (like good level design) but unfortunately, the film still manages to stab itself in the foot here by needlessly overselling the idea of Callum recreating the actions of the past via his giant mechanical helping hand. Within the first or second camera intercut from past to present, anyone watching would get the idea.... but it keeps happening again and again to the point of actually disrupting and diminishing the enjoyment of what should be the film’s standout set pieces. It’s like trying to watch something you’ve been looking forward to with an annoying child in the room that keeps demanding your attention every 30 seconds. The 15th Century scenes also suffer from their episodic nature. The film tries to give them a separate story centred on Aguilar and his Creed counterpart Maria (Ariane Labed – Black Mirror’s Men Against Fire) but it’s difficult to feel involved and connected to them because we keep skipping chapters in their tale towards their next fight.
The present day areas do also have their merits but prominent failings tripping them up. Firstly, the film tries to cover way too much material. There’s the centuries old feud between Assassins and Templars, Callum’s history and family drama, family tensions between facility director Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons – DCs new Alfred) and his Animus project leading daughter Sophia (Marion Cotillard – Allied). There just isn’t time to do everything justice and as such, much of it feels very undeveloped. Worst of all is the half dozen or so supporting faces of Animus candidates (Assassins in past lives) that we barely learn anything about other than Michael K. Williams’ (Boardwalk Empire) Moussa, who at least gets an introductory monologue. However, the “bleeding” scenes of lingering aftermath memories give Fassbender some good material to work with as slowly and not entirely willingly, he starts embodying his heritage. In fact, one spiteful musical interlude makes a highlight out a potential trainwreck moment. Jeremy Irons is also quite engaging as stern faced well meaning idealist (his character featured in the first game) and there is merit to seeing he and Cotillard trade intellectual blows on the nature of his ambitions. The film’s final act even lets the present day cast make worthwhile contributions to action.
Yet there is on final coup de gras across the whole film. It’s easy to understand why those involved would appoint director Justin Kurzel following his recent adaptation of Macbeth: the film was excellent, they wanted a similar authentic period feel for parts of Assassin's and he’d previously worked with both lead actors. It makes complete sense….. except that Kurzel doesn’t seem to understand that this film isn’t a Shakespearean drama, and as a result, everything is taken far too seriously. Areas that are crying out for shades of hints of satire or a lighter approach have nothing but grim solemn expressions. The central mcguffin is called the “Apple of Eden” for crying out loud but nobody on screen even acknowledges how dumb that sounds (it packs more A-words than the Steve Jobs biopic)! Similarly, the whole Animus “genetic memory” concept is inherently ridiculous and without someone at least voicing that opinion before being corrected, any notions of realism on believability take a wrist blade to the throat.
So Assassin’s Creed is a better than average game to film adaptation that boils down to a so-so time jumping action affair that could have been good or even great if it would just crack the occasional joke. These Assassins have plenty of visual appeal and long time game franchise fans should find at least some reward here but anyone else looking for a Creed movie is better off sticking to Apollo or Adonis.