The dirty little secret about the Assassin’s Creed games is that they are very dumb. The entire conceit of the game is dumb, but it took the game makers a few games to embrace some of the absurdity at the core of the plot. For that reason, it was beyond obvious that the film based on those games (especially the original game) would be dumb, as well. What I was not expecting was for the film to masquerade as intelligent.
The pedigree of the film was rather remarkable. It could be argued that Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are the two best performers working today. The thought of them in a film together would make any film junkie salivate.
Sure, no video game film has succeeded to any reasonable degree, but this couldn’t go wrong, right? If nothing else, director Justin Kurzel proved that he is a visually bold and fascinating director with his interpretation of Macbeth (also starring Fassbender and Cotillard). Assassin’s Creed should have been a fun action film with delicious visuals. Instead, Kurzel overreached by trying to capture era-specific visuals that actually shrouded a large portion of the action, as well as trying to make the film a modern Blade Runner with regard to thematic influence.
The result is a film that could have been an enjoyable escapade turned into a disappointing misfire, but because of a few large, inexplicable missteps the film has a few brief moments of brilliance brutally bogged down by pseudo-intelligence.
The plot of Assassin’s Creed revolves around a death row inmate who wakes up from his supposed death sentence in a facility whose primary goal is, allegedly, to solve every single one of the ills of society via a silver orb that holds the secrets of world peace… I guess? It is literally just a ball that projects light when you open it up. It is, quite possibly, the dumbest MacGuffin in the history of film. That could be excused if the plot was pushed aside in favor of great action, but that is not the case. In charge of this hunt for peace is Marion Cotillard’s character, a brilliant scientist with sound morals.
Fassbender’s character, Callum Lynch, is put into some sort of absurd machine that neurologically connects him to his ancestor, a Spanish assassin in the year of 1492 (wait, wasn’t there another important event perpetuated by a Spaniard in 1492? Did he sail along the Ocean Blue or something like that? Don’t worry, it rears its jarring head) in search of the Apple of Eden (the previously mentioned magical orb of peace). Fassbender is strapped into a gigantic mobile arm in which he recreates the miraculous martial arts moves of his assassin relative and provides the institute with information about the location of the magical sphere. Little known fact, we all carry the memories of our ancestors in our genes. Again, this wouldn’t be quite so maddening if the film wasn’t trying to pass as intelligent sci-fi.
(Too Much) Attention to Detail
Eagles are a motif throughout Assassin’s Creed. We are often treated to overhead shots flying above scenes of conflict. This conflict might be terribly interesting, but it is almost impossible to tell. Much of the action in this film is shrouded by smoke. The smoke is meant to drive home the constant sense of conflict, danger, and disorder, and it does that, but it also makes the on-screen happenings difficult to comprehend. Additionally, the drab clothing all of the characters wear in Spain makes it hard to point out our heroes.
There are some truly remarkable set pieces going on here that would be incredibly fun to watch if Kurzel and his crew would allow us to witness them. There is great attention paid to historical accuracy, but they are decisions that are to the detriment of a film with the action of Assassin’s Creed.
Even beyond the decision to abide to historical wardrobe and atmosphere, the film is unable to play to its strengths. Kurzel really wants to make you aware of the animus (that giant arm thingy through which Fassbender’s character connects with his ancestor). We are constantly treated to jarring cuts from the 15th century action to the mirrored motion of Fassbender in the animus. One thing is clear: it is much more fun to watch assassins fight in historic Spain than watch a man swing around in a concrete room. The effects that show the perfect mirroring of the two sequences are quite impressive, but it is utterly unnecessary and the novelty of it all wears thin in a hurry.
So Close, Yet So Far Away
Assassin’s Creed isn’t too far off from being a legitimately good film. The errors made are huge, but they are relatively few. I would argue that it is the best video game film ever made. The Templars will always present the opportunity for quality thriller components, and Assassin’s Creed does not disprove the rule. The prison that Fassbender finds himself in is inhabited by a large group of Templars whose motivations are shrouded until the film’s last half-hour.
The most compelling part of the film is, not surprisingly, the action in Renaissance-era Spain with the old-school Templars. The chemistry between this stoic version of Fassbender and fellow assassin Ariane Labed is incredibly strong. When the film decides to shut up and let action take over, it is a lot of fun. The fight choreography and parkour stunts are often awe-inspiring.
It is unfortunate that Kurzel got caught up in the minutia of the film and failed to see its obvious strengths. In a parallel universe, Kurzel focuses the action primarily in Spain and the stigma towards video game films is reversed. This should have been a Renaissance-era John Wick, not a wannabe Ex Machina. Video game protagonists are quiet and powerful in order to make the player feel that they are a part of the world. Filmmakers and actors continue to ignore this fact and make films with showy protagonists. Flashy is exactly what Callum Lynch is.
Fassbender gives it his all, but his intense performance is sometimes laughable because of the material he is forced to read from. The Spanish assassin is the kind of character that will allow video game films to break through, but his presence is far too limited. Until studios and filmmakers realize the way that video game protagonists should be adapted for the big screen, we will continue to get sub-par adaptations like this.
Assassin’s Creed is the best video game film ever made. It features strong performances, mostly good visuals, and often great action. However, giving a film the honor of best video game adaptation is akin to winning the Westminster Dog Show against a group of teacup pigs. The bar is low and Assassin’s Creed clears it, but it also represents a missed opportunity.
It seems that Justin Kurzel is trying his damnedest to make a dumb script smart. If that was the case, he should have adapted something other than Assassin’s Creed, a dumb video game that eventually realized that it should embrace its absurdity and let players screw around with every historical figure imaginable instead of trying to blow people’s mind with the inclusion of one.
They get a few points for effort but, in the end, Assassin’s Creed is a failure. A failure that could have been avoided, but a failure, nonetheless.
What do you think is the best video game film of all-time? Which video game would you like to see adapted to the big screen?
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