They say that if at first you don’t succeed, you should try, try again. That seems to be Hollywood’s motto for videogame movies. There’s yet to be a great one, or even a particularly good one. Now we have ‘Assassin’s Creed’. An annual gaming franchise that most players have gotten sick of has finally come to the big screen to the anticipation of barely anyone.
However, this project does have one ace up its sleeve. Director Justin Kurzel and star Michael Fassbender actually wanted to make the movie. It was a passion project. In fact, they even made a ‘Macbeth’ movie as a Shakespearian demo reel for their videogame dreams. The result is a film with vision and talent behind it, but whether or not it was worth those noble efforts remains a reasonable question.
The film is weirdly ambitious in its two-pronged narrative. First we’re introduced to Michael Fassbender as a super assassin named Aguilar, seeking out an ancient artifact during the Spanish Inquisition. Then we meet Michael Fassbender again as Cal, a modern man on Death Row for murdering a pimp. The threads collide when modern day Cal awakens from his presumed execution to find himself in a secret science lab in Madrid. He’s been kidnapped (kinda) by Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Irons. They play a father/daughter pair of mad scientists with ties to a secret cult. She wants to end violence; he wants to find an ancient apple that could end free will. They both do it through a secret VR program that will shove Cal into the body of his assassin ancestor. Confused yet? You should be.
The ‘Assassin’s Creed’ games aren’t exactly models of narrative clarity, especially once they entered an endless annual sequel production cycle. It’s no real surprise that Kurzel and his team of screenwriters chose to play mix-and-match with the established mythology to come up with their own thing. What they’ve delivered suits the franchise, defines itself as something unique, and doesn’t make nearly as much sense as the filmmakers with seem to think it does. However, it has some creative ideas and many striking images. It’s a mess, but an immensely watchable mess with moments that come close to greatness. That’s at least enough for this to be one of the best cinematic videogame adaptations to date, which has to count for something, dammit!
The visuals and tone that Kurzel delivers are very moody and evocative. Like his ‘Macbeth’, the director plays muddy murkiness as style. You gaze through a haze in most scenes, which enhances the mystery. The tone is dour, which is also the director’s specialty. Even though that means every character seems to be in a pouting competition, it kind of works with the material. After all, this is a nasty world of murky morality. There are questions worth asking even if the answers don’t appear. Kurzel has fun with that mystery and then delivers sweeping yet gritty action sequences that are easy to get lost in. The film is impressive and fun and clearly the result of a filmmaker stretching his imagination, even when it’s out of control.
The cast is far too overqualified for this material, almost as if they all showed up thinking that Kurzel was making another Shakespeare adaptation. Fassbender is brilliant in the lead role, pained and in existential anguish, but still able to kick all the asses that are required. Cotillard works her expressive eyes for all the tragedy she can muster. Irons snarls up a storm in his villainously British way. Everyone is solid, even when their characters are paper thin. It’s pulp played as high drama and it works as often as it fails.
Nonetheless, fail the film does, and rather frequently. Despite all the self-importance on display, this is ultimately a deeply dumb story that doesn’t even answer all of its questions since that would harm sequel potential. The almost 2.5 hour gaming epic is far too long and the pacing is frequently wonky since Kurzel can’t seem to decide how to get all of his overblown ideas on the screen at once. The PG-13 rating also really hampers the director’s ability to deliver the painful and morally questionable violence that he strives for.
In a rare instance for a videogame movie, ‘Assassin’s Creed’ fails because the project is too artistically ambitious, rather than completely devoid of artistic ambition. That’ll likely make it a fascinating flop once it stumbles out of theaters licking its wounds from an inevitable ‘Star Wars’ battering. At least this thing is worth watching and hopefully it won’t be the last time that Kurzel is handed the keys to the blockbuster kingdom. He’s an interesting filmmaker to be assigned projects of this scale, but the videogame movie genre has claimed yet another victim.