On paper, the action-adventure “Assassin’s Creed” has a lot going for it. Its boasts heralded actors like two-time Academy Award-nominee Michael Fassbender, and Academy Award-winners Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Irons, as well as critic darlings Brendan Gleeson (“In Bruges”), Charlotte Rampling (“The Swimming Pool”), Michael Kenneth Williams (“Boardwalk Empire”), and Essie Davis (“The Babadook”). It’s helmed by acclaimed Aussie director Justin Kurzel, who broke through with the grisly biopic “The Snowtown Murders,” then stunned with a Fassbender-fronted “Macbeth.” Yet there’s that one big red flag: it’s a video game movie.
Despite video games’ evolution as an immersive and unique storytelling medium, Hollywood has yet to crack the code on how to transition tales set in or based on games successfully to film. While there’s the occasional win (“Wreck It Ralph”), this genre is awash with the critically reviled (“Pixels”) and box office losers (“Super Mario Bros.,” “Doom,” “Double Dragon”). And “Assassin’s Creed” is sure to be counted as another flop, because as a film, it fails on every level.
Fassbender stars as convicted killer Callum Lynch, whose death sentence in prison proves to be just the beginning of his adventure. Waking from his supposed execution in a strange research institute, Cal is informed by a whispering scientist named Sofia (Cotillard) that he is the descendent of an assassin. As such, he’ll be plugged into a special machine–“the Animus”–that will enable him to retrace the footsteps of his assassin ancestor in the hopes of recovering the location of a long lost relic: the Apple of Eden.
Sofia seeks it believing it will allow her to concoct a cure for aggression and an end to violence. Her lurking father (Irons) has plans to employ her research to conquer the world with his secret society, the Knights Templar. And the other assassin descendants/believers of the titular creed — kept meandering around this same strange research prison — want to keep the mighty McGuffin out of the hands of the Templar, or anyone who would use it. That might make you wonder why the assassins spend centuries hiding it instead of just destroying it, or chucking it into the ocean or volcano. But — um… hey look! Smoke bomb!
“What the f*ck is going on!?” Cal sneers in the midst of a plot that refuses to make sense. This marks the only moment where the film seems to have any awareness of its audience. Aside from this, their desire to understand or even see this story are seemingly forgotten. Sure, in broad strokes noobs to “Assassin’s Creed”s mythos will understand that the Assassins and the Knights are at war over the Apple. But that’s about it. The convoluted script by a trio of screenwriters (Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage) piles on exposition dumps about Cal’s tragic backstory and pseudo-science chatter about synchronicity until the finer points of the story are lost amid a minefield of plot holes and confounding lines of dialogue.
Conversation in this film reads like it was written by a Twitter bot. For instance, here’s an exchange between Cal and Sofia:
“I don’t think I like your methods.”
“I’m a scientist.”
“If you’re here to cure me, who’s going to cure you?”
What are they talking about? With to without context, your guess is as good as mine.
The inexplicable story and dizzying dialogue handicaps the assembled talent, who are left to strut around, brooding blandly in oddly tailored clothes — lots of bias cuts and angular blouses — without much sense to be spoken. This makes for characters so lifeless that calling them one-dimensional would be a compliment. Granted Williams, Davis and Irons manage to bring some spark to minor roles, but the leads are left to sneeringly sleepwalk through ludicrous lines as stilted setup for rambling action sequences. All the relationships feel shallow to nonexistent, further dulling the impact of the film. But, who cares, right? As long as they get those fight scenes right… nope.
Granted, there’s repeated shots of Cal’s ancestor, Aguilar of the crazy cool hoodie, doing the “leap of faith,” and it’s thrilling, even if the film never bothers to explain how he survives it, always cutting away like a dream where you fall off a cliff and wake up right before the moment of impact. Yet, none of the trips to the animus offer a single worthwhile action sequence. While the stunt work and hand-to-hand fighting seems solid, the execution is marred by an overzealous cutting style and haze — so much haze. No matter where the assassins fight, there’s something to obscure our view of them, be it dust clouds, smoke bombs or mist. The result is choppy action displayed in shadowy silhouette, the detail and wallop lost amid astoundingly poor aesthetic choices. Much of the film looks like you’re watching it through a filthy window, that’s how disruptive all the haze is.
So the story is confusing, the characters have all the personality of paint chips, and Kurzel’s fixation on haze damns the action scenes to be obscured to the point of oblivion. All this makes for a muddy, ugly and supremely boring film. With the “Assassin’s Creed” games as inspiration, there was a rich mythos to pull from, but all this adaptation offers is muck and meh. And so the curse lives on.
“Assassin’s Creed” opens Dec. 21.