In 2007 the developers of Assassin’s Creed (2007) cursed themselves. The legacy of the entire series can be tracked in its attempts to escape the ramifications of a choice that probably made sense at the time. We, nine years later now, sit in a theatre watching Ubisoft’s first film, one they’re wanting to be sure is done right. One that stars some legit Hollywood faces. One with a director who got some good work under his belt. Yet as a result of this one choice made almost a decade ago we get a film that is a grand mess.
Assassin’s Creed (2016), you see, is a sci-fi historical action joint. It’s a mistake. Fassbender’s Cal Lynch is the descendant of an assassin of antiquity, Aguilar de Nerha, who he also portrays. The assassins are the sworn enemies of the Templars and Dear God you can tell this was all conceived of at a time where we took the novels of Dan Brown seriously. In the modern day he is kidnapped by the Templars following a staged execution. They plan to strap him into a machine to live out the memories of his ancestor’s attempts to protect the Piece of Eden (Christ) during the Reconquista.
It really wants you to take the history seriously. In the historical segments they all be speaking Spanish. ‘It’s set in Spain,’ you can hear an executive saying, ‘why don’t we have them all speak Spanish.’ Those assembled around the table all nod their heads. Yeah? No, so desperate to be legitimate, it completely ignores how silly the whole concept is. Which is a shame because, unlike games, in cinema the historical action epic is a legitimate genre.
There’s this structure to the film, in the future people stand around and talk. When we’ve had enough of that, we go to the past and fight. The characters we know in the future don’t fight. The fighters we know in the past aren’t characters. Do you see the problem here? We got two movies, one which is contextless conflict and the other which is conflictless context. This is so obvious. This is a huge structural flaw that somehow never got noticed. It’s why all the drama has to be about this MacGuffin that every character be chasing, because neither plot has an escalating arc of action that would motivate any significant character development.
Well, to be fair, there is one attempt at this, Brendan Gleeson turns up midway through as our character’s lost father. Now I love Brandan Gleeson, I got so much in my heart for that man but boy is he miscast here. Is it because they’re both Irish? There must have been some rationale that I am not gathering here. It’s not even a bad performance, it just all feels wrong. Gleeson is an amazing, generous actor and can be so many things, but Fassbender’s father? We gotta draw a line somewhere, and for me, it’s here.
The other actors are all strong, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, they should be, but the script fails to give them any internal life. At one point Alan Rikkin, Irons’ character, pours a midday scotch. Why though? It’s a careless and thoughtless inclusion and a cheap signifier for the sorts of privilege this man is supposed to possess. The entire film, notepad sketches of its underdeveloped characters. I imagine a lot got cut.
At least the action scenes are serviceable for the most part, with the sort of fluid choreography that the games attempt to convey but never quite manage. Fassbender though is straddled with those wrist blades from the game and it seems at no point did anyone pay attention enough to realise they’re a stealth weapon. He has to engage in full sword fights with the things which leave him feeling a little too much like Peter Pan, it ridiculous. Unfortunately, while it gets the combat, Christopher Tellefsen’s edit has a tendency to lose important geography in the cut, especially while characters are on the move. Most notably this happens in a rooftop chase which completely loses itself halfway through.
It’s sad to see a film so ill conceived. Especially when just about everyone saw the flaws in the concept damn near a decade ago but still they went on anyway. There probably exists a good Assassin’s Creed film somewhere, it’s just not this one. Sorry Yves, you wanted to make video game films right? So far you’ve only managed to make them worthy.