Video game movies are terrible. This has long since evolved from froth-spewed internet opinion to cold hard fact thanks to a kilometers-long list of failures over the years. In some cases (here’s looking at you, Super Mario Bros), “failure” is even too kind a euphemism. “Mangled trainwreck of the soul” seems more apt. But just because a movie is terrible, doesn’t mean it can’t still be enjoyed. Mortal Kombat is a bad movie by any definition, yet we still love it’s kung fu hokiness and iconic techno soundtrack.
Which brings us to latest video game movie attempt: Assassin’s Creed. Boasting more award-winning talent than you can shake a golden statue of a naked sword-wielding man at, this adaptation of Ubisoft’s immensely popular action adventure franchise was viewed by many as the best chance we have ever had to finally break the video game movie losing streak. And now having watched it, I can confidently say that it’s the best video game movie we’ve ever seen. Just a pity that it’s not quite a great movie overall.
Now this is the point where some of you will probably start gnashing your teeth and shaking your fists at the heavens, declaring that “HOLLYWOOD MESSED IT UP AGAIN! A POX ON YOU, HOLLYWOOD!”, and then will not read the rest of my review in anger. Please don’t do that. And no, it’s not just because I put off stuffing my face with Christmas biscuits to write this review and thus feel it deserves to be read (although, that admittedly counts a little), but rather because there’s a huge caveat that it is imperative I mention.
Yes, overall Assassin’s Creed is not the wholly spectacular cinematic revolution we were optimistically hoping for, but for a large portion of its total running time, IT’S GODDAMN INCREDIBLE. From a pure action movie standpoint, it’s one of the best you will see this entire year, boasting some of the greatest, most enervating on-foot chases to ever grace the big screen. And its actual hand-to-hand action choreography is second to none, mixing visceral bone-crunching pragmatic pugilism with the type of cool martial arts visual flair usually found in Hong Kong action epics. As far as adapting these trademark aspects of the video games go, Assassin’s Creed nails them perfectly. It’s just a pity that in between all this extremely high caliber action, some unforgivable scripting idiocy keeps sneaking in.
Said script follows Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender), a violent rabble-rouser, sentenced to death for murder. But while Callum appears to die by the government’s hand, he’s actually rescued by Dr. Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard), who along with her father Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), run high profile science outfit Abstergo Industries. Abstergo is actually just the modern day front for the Knight’s Templar though, an ancient order that has been engaged in a clandestine war with an equally ancient brotherhood of Assassins for numerous centuries, all to lay claim to a mysterious artifact known as the Apple of Eden.
As Dr. Rikkin tells Callum, Abstergo is dedicated to the “perfection of humankind”, and the enigmatic Apple is a huge step in this plan as it’s believed to contain the genetic secrets to eradicating violence in humans. The Apple has been lost to time since the 15th century though, but Abstergo won’t let a little thing like that get in the way of their plans. Cue, SCIENCE! Callum’s bloodline has been traced back directly to Aguilar de Nerha (also Michael Fassbender), an assassin who lived in 15th century Spain, and the last documented person to be in possession of the Apple. By plugging him into a whirligig virtual reality machine known as the Animus, Callum is able to completely relive the genetic memories of his ancestor contained in his DNA, retracing Aguilar’s adventures to find out what he did with the Apple.
And by “retracing”, I actually mean engaging in some of the finest period piece action you’ve ever had grace your eyeballs. While Callum slowly starts to unravel the actual details of the war between Templar and Assassins in the modern day – thanks in part to another group of Abstergo’s genetic test subjects led by Moussa (Michael K. Williams) – its here in 15th century Spain, in the time of violent religious upheaval thanks to the Spanish Inquisition, where the bulk of that incredible action takes place. And director Justin Kurzel (who also directed Fassbender and Cotillard in the gorgeous Macbeth) films it all beautifully, with vertiginous cinematography sweeping over ancient landscapes and towering edifices, before shoving you down, elbow to elbow, as you rush through claustrophobic ancient city burroughs. Although the occasional bit of CG cheapness does rear its uncanny head, production design is top notch here, from the cityscapes to the detailed costumes.
And as expected, the multiple award-winning cast handles it all with incredible skill. The likes of Fassbender and Cotillard are such incredibly talented thespians that they probably could not put in a bad performance even if they tried. And Fassbender, true to his method acting form, even puts in considerable physical effort, muscling up and genuinely pulling off a number of the film’s fantastic fisticuff moments himself. He does leave the gravity-defying chase sequences (including a stomach churning 125-foot freefall dive that was done for real like most of the film’s unbelievable stunt work) to his stunt double, parkour legend Damien Walters, though.
Where it all starts to stumble is in the script by Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage. Unlike in the video games on which it is based, where the past portions sees all the narrative development while the modern sections just bookend it, here all the character and narrative progression happens with Callum, while Aguilar and his companions merely serve as incredibly badass plot devices. But even the modern day section’s progression is mostly related to Callum’s personal journey. The most criminal result of this is that all the video game franchise’s extremely deep mythology – for many, its biggest drawcard as it mixes real world historical events and figures with crazy sci-fi conspiracy theories and brow-furrowing philosophizing – is touched on in only the most furtive sense here. Admittedly info-dumping all of this would probably have overwhelmed newcomers to this world, but now they may also find themselves lost as concepts, characters and factions are introduced with only the most cursory explanations.
Assassin’s Creed‘s biggest sin though, is that unlike the “leaps of faith” pulled off so spectacularly by its characters, it simply cannot stick its landing. While boasting an impressive action sequence of note, it’s third act is painfully rushed. Headscratching leaps of narrative logic are made, as characters are shuttled from plot point to plot point with little rhyme or reason. Adding to the mess are a couple of last minute revelations that make little sense in the moment. And all of this leads to a seriously anticlimactic ending, not just laughable in its clumsy execution, but also grimly aggravating in its failure to offer a resolution of any real substance but instead just be content to set up the sequel the producers have obviously already started pulling out the champagne and cigars in celebration of.
I would holster those stogies and bubbly for now, if I were them though. For while Assassin’s Creed is undoubtedly a supremely exciting film with levels of filmmaking polish and a caliber of A-list cast and crew not normally seen in this genre, it falls into the same trap so many other entries have done in the past. Its 115-minute running could sorely have needed an extra 30 or so, to fill in the gaping gaps in its worldbuilding and allow its characters and narrative room to breathe and develop organically. Also, how about finishing this one tale conclusively, before wall-running and parkour-leaping off to the next?
Yes, it’s definitely possible to enjoy bad movies, but Assassin’s Creed rankles because it is not a bad movie but instead comes so damn close to being a great one and then misses its target!