Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise has a rich history in the world of videogames. One of the first games to get players salivating over the prospect of owning a PlayStation 3 or an Xbox 360, Assassin’s Creed has been a staple of the yearly videogame schedule since 2007. That’s almost a decade of near constant popularity, but keeping that schedule up hasn’t always been to the series benefit. Having to produce a game every autumn, no matter what state the game is in, has meant that some instalments have left the gate in a state of blatant incompletion. In fact, this is the first year that Assassin’s Creed has taken off since 2008. But in lieu of an interactive edition, they’ve instead brought out one of those non-interactive games instead. Y’know, a film?
Michael Fassbender stars and produces this, the Assassin’s Creed motion picture. In it, he takes on the role of death row inmate Cal Lynch. Cal is in prison for reasons that remain clouded in mystery for much of the film. He is rescued from the needle by Marion Cotillard’s Sofia, a scientist who is trying to cure the world of violence backed by an organisation that are trying to control free will.
They introduce Cal to the Animus. The Animus is a machine that will unlock Cal’s genetic memories, i.e. the memories of his ancestors that he has inherited through his genes, much like his piercing blue eyes and strong cheekbones. The ancestor the Animus zeroes in on is a Spanish chap (also played by the Irish actor) called Aguilar, who at the start of the film is being accepted into the legendary assassin group the Hashashin, who are the followers of the Assassin’s Creed.
We join them during the Spanish Inquisition where they’re in conflict with the Knights Templar, whose modern-day followers became the multi-conglomerate shadow company Abstergo. Abstergo currently have an office in Madrid seen over by Sophia and her father. Intrigue abounds. Abstergo have taken up the mission of the Templars to obtain the Apple of Eden, the biblical artefact that contains humanity’s capacity to think for itself. With it they can control human impulse and create a brighter future by destroying agency. The Assassins are charged with keeping the apple, and free will, safe.
If that was a lot to take in, try writing about it. That was as concise I could possibly be with a plot this convoluted. Director Justin Kurzel isn’t entirely at fault with this one as over complication is a feature of his source material. In fact, he’s done the best thing possible by making the plot of the prisoner and the plot of the ancestor one and the same, whereas the game would give the audience two stories to try and care about, both as complicated as each other.
The world of Assassin’s Creed is also quite visually and tonally distinct from the games. The games would devote ten percent of the player’s time to the modern day setting whereas the film spends the majority of its time in the present. Also, the more charismatic a presence the lead character is – such as Assassin’s Creed II’s Ezio and Black Flag’s Edward Kenway – is an indicator of how enjoyable the game will be. If the protagonist is a drag like the original’s Altair or III’s Connor then the game is bound to be a slog. Unfortunately, they’ve gone with the stoic, self-serious, dour dude who has no idea how to have a good time.
But Cal’s attitude does match his surroundings. Kurzel’s twin worlds are dystopic future and bleak medieval theocracy. They are beautiful in their own washed-out way; an element of texture pervades every atmosphere, frost grips the hills of Southern Spain, sand and dust kicks up on the Mexican Coast and the smoke of battle fogs up Medieval Madrid. It’s a far cry away from the multi-coloured paint parties that usually dominate the action genre. It gives the world a strange dreamlike quality, an element of the ethereal that contrasts nicely with the realism of the parkour and fight scenes.
Typically though for a director of Justin Kurzel’s temperament, the best scene in the film, the one that spikes the heartrate the most – isn’t when Aguilar takes down his prey in public, or when Cal fights his guards in the Abstergo facility, it’s a simple conversation that takes place between Cal and his father, played by Brendan Gleeson. Kurzel is at his best when taking a step back and letting the characters take control of the film, allowing them to open up the emotional truth of the story.
It’s after this moment – three quarters of the way into the film – that the movie really gets going. It’s as if Kurzel has finally found his footing in the material. The action scenes have more pace to them, there is a greater sense of urgency, even an element of fun that was conspicuously absent before in a historical swashbuckler.
Assassin’s Creed is a flawed, but enjoyable film that stands out from the franchise crowd. It tries to create a sense of mystery surrounding its main characters, but just manages to be just vague enough to leave them with too little character. It pays off these mysteries with a deeper exploration into their troubled psyches and ideologies, so, even though it might be a little late, there is a satisfying resolution. The action is fast and frantic, filmed with a real stunt crew giving their scenes a real sense of peril. It’s an interesting work, if one that has a fragile sense of identity. Much like the Assassins themselves.
Dir: Justin Kurzel
Scr: Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Michael Kenneth Williams, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling
Prd: Jean-Julien Baronnet, Patrick Crowley, Michael Fassbender, Gerard Guillemot, Frank Marshall, Conor McCaughan, Arnon Milchan
Music: Jed Kurzel
DOP: Adam Arkapaw
Runtime: 140 minutes