When it was announced that Michael Fassbender was signing on to produce and star in an adaptation of the video game “Assassin’s Creed,” there was reason for optimism. Even more so when he opted to bring along his “Macbeth” co-star Marion Cotillard and most of the creative team as well. And yet, this adaptation turned out decidedly worse. Another example of Shakespeare being better than a game? Well, yes, but it runs deeper than that. At almost every turn, this film is deeply misguided. A joyless affair, it’s a complete slog to sit through. Despite the promise, this movie is one of the year’s worst.
This version of “Assassin’s Creed” is the worst possible one that could have hit screens. Equal parts ridiculous and self serious, it’s a complete misfire. Despite up-and -coming director Justin Kurzel on hand, the visuals are muddled, there’s no logic on hand, and more often than not, you can’t figure out what’s going on. It’s over-plotted and never even comes close to finding its footing. “Assassin’s Creed” just ends up being a waste of time, money and a ton of talent. There had been hope that this would be the video game adaptation to break the quality curse, but ultimately it’s as bad as most of the other ones we’ve had the displeasure of seeing.
The plot is nonsensical and things start off on a bad note with a prolonged crawl that fills us in on things we can’t possibly care about yet (outside of “Star Wars,” this never works). For centuries, there has been a secret war between the Assassin society and the Templar society. Assassins have been trying to stop the Templars from acquiring the Apple of Eden, an item that somehow can control free will. In the modern time, the battle has basically been won by the Templar clan, just without possession of the Apple. To find it, they have a technology invented by Sofia Rikkin (Cotillard) called the Animus, which unlocks genetic memories. From there, they just need a descendant of the Assassins, which they find in Callum Lynch (Fassbender).
Sentenced to death by lethal injection, Callum is instead abducted/rescued by Sofia and brought to the facility run by her father (Jeremy Irons) for use in the Animus. There, Callum is made to jump into the memories of his ancestor Aguilar, in 15th century Spain. Sofia and company want him to see where the Apple ended up, as Aguilar was the last known possessor of it. Callum, however, initially resists and begins gaining the knowledge and skills of a master assassin. You see where this is going, right? Well, it’ll get there, but in the most ludicrous and least sensible ways possible.
One of the reasons this movie was hotly anticipated was its A-list cast. Sadly, Cotillard and Fassbender are completely wasted here. Cotillard is an exposition machine and given nothing to do, while Fassbender looks bored and more than a little puzzled by what’s going on around him. You never buy any shades of grey in Cotillard’s character, which the film desperately wants you to grapple with. As for Fassbender, you can almost see him shaking his head whenever the camera pans away from him. When playing Callum, he sits in various cells or gets strapped into the silly machine. As Aguilar, he engages in poorly edited fights that are steeped in needless shadows. He’s utterly miscast.
It’s not just Cotillard and Fassbender who suffer the indignities of “Assassin’s Creed” here. Also in the cast are the likes of Brendan Gleeson, Michael Kenneth Williams and more, but they’re just as wasted as anyone else. Fassbender is the star power in the lead, but it’s just inexcusable to have a supporting cast that includes Cotillard, Irons, Gleeson and Williams but not utilize them in any satisfying manner. Not a single interaction between cast members includes any chemistry whatsoever, while just about everyone struggles with the ridiculous dialogue. Note to filmmakers everywhere: just having an accent doesn’t make stupid lines go down any easier.
The other reason “Assassin’s Creed” initially had a chance at working? Having Justin Kurzel in the director’s chair. Sadly, he proves wholly inadequate for this sort of a film. There’s a commitment to style, but it never fits in with the choices being made. There’s one puzzling decision after the next, while the wrong aspects of the game are translated to the screen. Seriously, try not to laugh at the soaring eagle that appears before every fight scene. The subtlety he brought to “The Snowtown Murders” or the restrained artfulness of “Macbeth” are nowhere to be found. It’s a real shame, too.
At times, the cinematography of Adam Arkapaw creates an interesting visual dynamic, but at others it just needlessly obfuscates what’s going on onscreen. Ditto the choppy editing that prevents one from seeing anything interesting during the fights. Kurzel just appears incapable of making a large scale movie. His battle sequences are muddled, the plot is never given any clarity, and there doesn’t seem to be any investment on his part. Composer Jed Kurzel‘s score is fine, but unspectacular, which is sadly one of the higher points here. “Assassin’s Creed” should have at least been a technical marvel, but even that is a bridge too far.
In the end, “Assassin’s Creed” is the sort of thing that will be quickly forgotten about. It manages to somehow give video game movies a bad name, which is hard to do. Why? Because the potential was there for something more. You can forgive craven money grabs or things that seem misguided from the start. This wasn’t that though, clearly. The execution is just so poor that it seems even worse by comparison. 2016 has had some real cinematic misfires, but this is one of the most notable. Not only a strong contender for any worst of the year lists, it’s just a huge disappointment all around.
“Assassin’s Creed” is distributed by 20th Century Fox and opens in theaters on Dec. 21.