Does being the best video game-based movie ever count for much? While other entries in this less-than-illustrious genre have their defenders – Paul W.S. Anderson’s wackadoo Resident Evil series and Christophe Gans’ slavishly faithful Silent Hill come to mind – there isn’t exactly a history of excellence to live up to. It doesn’t take much to best that poor competition, so credit to Justin Kurzel’s Assassin’s Creed for making the designation of “Best Video Game Movie” feel almost like an achievement.
There’s certainly no lack of ambition on display in Assassin’s Creed. This adaptation of the popular Ubisoft franchise begun in 2007 boasts an all-star cast, including Michael Fassbender – one of the finest actors currently working – in the lead, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Michael K. Williams, and Charlotte Rampling in a small villain part. It’s helmed by Justin Kurzel, director of such stylish and ultra grim movies as The Snowtown Murders and the recent Fassbender/Cotillard-starring Macbeth, and backed by megastudio 20th Century Fox with a hefty production budget. Everyone involved is taking this very, very seriously. Therein lies both the problem and, ultimately, the charm of the film.
Assassin’s Creed tells the story of Cal Lynch (Fassbender) whom we first meet, after a brief prologue, on death row in a Texas prison. After a legitimately disturbing scene where our hero is executed via lethal injection, he awakens in a mysterious high-tech science laboratory/prison with Sofia Rikkin (Cotilliard). She explains (sort of?) that because of his bloodline he has been selected for testing inside of “the Animus,” which allows him to access his ancestors’ memories and makes him able to relive his life as an Assassin – a member of an elite order dedicated to preserving free will for all mankind – in the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Arrayed against the Assassins are the Templars, a religious order aimed at world domination and engaged in pursuing the “Apple of Eden,” which is both an apple from the Edenic Tree of Life and later described as containing “the genetic information for free will itself” (!!). Together with her father, a prominent contemporary Templar (Irons), Sofia must train Cal to enter the memories of his ancestor Aguilar de Nerha in 15th Century Spain in order to locate the Apple of Eden and secure Templar power against the Assassins forever.
As you can see from that plot synopsis, this movie is nuts. With its odd mishmash of future sci-fi, Dan Brown-esque historical conspiracy-mongering, and swashbuckling action, Assassin’s Creed is stubbornly faithful to its video game source material. Problem is – and has always been with video game movies – that what passes muster as a story between button presses will usually, when translated to the cinematic realm, be exposed as the thin tissue that it is. With all the sci-fi technobabble, portentous talk about “free will,” and the Templars’ confusing plan to “rid the world of violence,” AC comes dangerously close to convincing you that it’s actually about something, though what that something might be I couldn’t tell you. Luckily nobody told director Kurzel or actor/producer Fassbender, since they take it as deadly seriously as their last collaboration, applying the same gravity to this nonsense as they did to Shakespeare. The cold, antiseptic interiors of the Abstergo Corporation where Cal is held prisoner contrast vividly with the dust-choked, filthy streets and rooftops of 15th century Spain. And, while Kurzel returns too often to sweeping CGI vistas for my taste, much of the action is well-staged and feels appropriately intimate for the sort of combat common to the world of Assassins. Fassbender invests his character with a fair amount of pathos, but there’s really very little for him to play. His “journey,” such as it is, is unclear and he seems oddly passive for much of the runtime. Cotilliard has a bit more to do as someone conflicted by her actions and unsure of which side to take. Jeremy Irons, who between this and Batman v Superman is presumably building a spectacular new house somewhere, classes up the joint as he is wont to do. Brendan Gleeson is there too, for two brief scenes. (Brendan Gleeson gotta eat.) Everybody plays everything with an admirably straight face. Perhaps too straight – there’s practically zero intentional humor in the film, though the deadly-serious execution of such silly material provided this viewer with more amusement than a more self-conscious, jokey take might have done.
Despite it all, I found Assassin’s Creed more amusing than enervating. As someone who’s spent a fair amount of time with the series on which it’s based, I got a perverse kick out of seeing this many resources and this much talented all earnestly spent on something so inherently nonsensical. The production design is topnotch, the world-building is thoroughly convincing, and following the bizarre logic of the plot is worth it once the kinetic action scenes kick in. The movie has character; its strangeness sets it apart from so much of the homogenized BS we’ve been fed in 2016 (which has been a particularly awful year for blockbusters). I can’t really recommend this movie, per se, but anyone who’s played the games or is interested in the marketing materials could do a lot worse than this. And while there’s a huge Star Wars-shaped behemoth taking up all the air in theaters this holiday season, I can’t help but have a bit of admiration for a movie as thoroughly committed to its bizarre vision as this one. Assassin’s Creed is better than it has any right to be, for whatever that’s worth. It’s not Shakespeare, but for a video game movie it’ll do fine for now.