The year 2016 has been full of surprises, so in some ways Assassin’s Creed, Hollywood’s latest attempt to mine gold from an industry that rakes in more dough than it does, is a reassuring tonic: Video game adaptations remain plodding affairs. Directed by Australian helmer Justin Kurzel, reuniting with his Macbeth stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, Assassin’s Creed is resolutely stone-faced, ditching the humdrum quips that are par for the course in today’s blockbusters. But this is almost two hours of convoluted hokum that might have benefited from a few self-deflating jabs. “What the f— is going on,” wonders Fassbender at one point. If only you could discern the shadow of a wink.
Assassin’s Creed reps Fassbender’s first film as a producer, though it’s hard to see what excited him about it, given that he’s got nothing to play. Game characters are ciphers by nature, with none of the idiosyncrasies that might complicate our ability to slip into their avatars frictionlessly. And although the film’s hero is a new one invented for the big screen, writers Bill Collage and Adam Cooper (Exodus: Gods and Kings, Allegiant) and Michael Lesslie (Macbeth) haven’t bothered to overlay anything fresh, like personality.
Fassbender plays Callum Lynch, a “career criminal” sentenced to death by lethal injection. He wakes up after his apparent execution to find himself in the company of Sofia Rikkin (Cotillard), who works for Abstergo Industries. Based in Madrid, Abstergo (Latin for “cleanse”) is the modern face of the Knights Templar, which seeks peace on earth by controlling all free will. The key to doing so is an artifact known as the “Apple of Eden,” hidden for centuries by the Templars‘ sworn enemies, the Assassins, from whom Lynch is descended.
Abstergo’s brutalist HQ is presided over by Sofia’s father (Jeremy Irons, boilerplate) as a prison for present-day Assassins, including Michael K. Williams and Callum Turner (Green Room). They’re periodically plugged into “the Animus,” which taps into “genetic memory” to send the user back in time (or something), inhabiting the lives of their ancestors and revealing their secrets to the Templars.
Lynch, who blames his Assassins father (Brendan Gleeson) for the murder of his mother (an all-too-brief Essie Davis), isn’t playing sides, which makes him the perfect candidate to help the Templars secure the Apple. The process might cost him his life, but Irons is under pressure from his superior (a wasted Charlotte Rampling) to get results.
And so Lynch hurtles back to 15th-century Spain, where his ancestor Aguilar has been sent by the Assassins to make sure that the besieged Sultan Muhammad XII doesn’t give up the Apple along with Granada. Cue a chariot race, a rooftop escape from Inquisition pyres and the game’s signature Leap of Faith, in which our hooded warrior makes his escape via a vertiginous rooftop drop. Fassbender is joined on these jaunts — shot in Malta and Spain — by Ariane Labed (Attenberg, The Lobster) as a female assassin with whom it’s implied he shares more than just lethal skills.
The film is at its most engaging during these medieval sequences, though free-running tilts across rooftops have been done to death, not least in Prince of Persia, from which the original Assassin’s Creed game was spawned. Jake Gyllenhaal’s 2010 movie version is a worthy point of comparison: no peach, perhaps, but at least straightforward — whereas Kurzel is hamstrung by a desultory present-day framing device, in which Fassbender mopes about a series of grey rooms in a blue jumpsuit while competing with Cotillard and Irons to see who can get through slabs of exposition with greater alacrity. Cotillard fares best, summoning a genuine sense of uncertainty amid all the utopian blather.
The Templars‘ grand scheme — “The history of the world is the history of violence,” says Irons — is less interesting than the story’s nod to themes of identity and religious strife, while the positing of the Christian Templars as oppressors of the obviously Moorish Assassins hints at a more subversive blockbuster than the one Assassin’s Creed is content to be. Instead we get action sequences shorn of context propelled by characters who are anonymous, even if one of them looks like the star.
Kurzel’s regular DP Adam Arkapaw (True Detective, The Light Between Oceans) mostly ditches the painterly tableaus of Macbeth for swooping topographic glides. Each world, from auto-da-fé to bunker, is evocatively rendered by production designer Andy Nicholson and costume designer Sammy Sheldon Differ. And composer Jed Kurzel (Slow West, The Babadook) capably steps into the blockbuster frame with a nicely hurtling score, traditional for the 15th century and electronic for this one until they begin to overlap, as the modern Assassins shake off their shackles for a franchise-bait ending that’s all too abrupt.
Production companies: Ubisoft Motion Pictures, DMC Film, New Regency Pictures, The Kennedy/Marshall Company
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams, Ariane Labed, Callum Turner, Brendan Gleeson, Essie Davis, Denis Ménochet
Director: Justin Kurzel
Screenwriters: Bill Collage, Adam Cooper, Michael Lesslie
Producers: Jean-Julien Baronnet, Patrick Crowley, Michael Fassbender, Gerard Guillemot, Frank Marshall, Arnon Milchan, Conor McCaughan
Executive producers: Markus Barmettler, Christine Burgess-Quémard, Jean de Rivieres, Serge Hascoet, Philip Lee
Director of photography: Adam Arkapaw
Production designer: Andy Nicholson
Costume designer: Sammy Sheldon Differ
Editor: Christopher Tellefsen
Composer: Jed Kurzel
Casting: Jina Jay
Rated PG-13, 108 minutes