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Assassin’s Creed review: soars over the low bar of video game movies

Video game movies are sometimes mocked for forcing dramatic story arcs onto things that are essentially non-narrative, like the endless shooting gallery of Doom, or the physics puzzles of Angry Birds. But when filmmakers take on projects like Assassin’s Creed, based on the Ubisoft action-game franchise of the same name, they face a different problem: what’s the point? Assassin’s Creed, a game franchise that launched in 2007, is an intensely cinematic series about the generational conflict between two warring secret societies. Poke around YouTube, and you’ll find dozens of “movies” that are simply hours of gameplay and cutscenes spliced together, laying out exhaustively detailed sci-fi adventures that cover the entirety of human civilization and then some, from the Crusades to the near future and back to pre-human Earth. A Hollywood adaptation needs to feel like more than an extremely truncated live-action remake — and when Assassin’s Creed manages to do so, it’s by going smaller, not bigger.

Directed by Justin Kurzel (whose feature-film debut was the 2011 drama Snowtown), Assassin’s Creed is a standalone film that slots loosely into the larger franchise, based on a pared-down version of its complex lore. Like the games, the film posits that the historical Knights Templar are actually a powerful, long-standing shadow government seeking world domination — here, through an artifact called the Apple of Eden, which contains “the genetic blueprint for free will.” All that stands in their way is the Assassins, a group of anarchic warriors who have thwarted the Templars’ plans throughout history.

Assassin’s Creed wisely pushes the series’ most elaborate cosmic lore into the background, although it occasionally hints at the Apple’s creators, a pre-human race of godlike beings. But its biggest change is a major shift in focus. Most of the Assassin’s Creed series is technically a string of ancient “genetic memories,” reconstructed inside a fictional virtual-reality system known as the Animus. In the games, the Animus is primarily a clever but forgettable framing device for sci-fi-tinged historical fiction, and the “real” modern world — where your options and abilities are suddenly limited — is an anemic shadow of its rich, virtual historical settings.

The film turns this inside out, exploring a piece of the world that never felt as well suited to video games. Assassin’s Creed is primarily the story of Callum Lynch (X-Men and Prometheus’ Michael Fassbender), a present-day death row inmate and distant descendent of 15th-century Spanish Assassin Aguilar. After faking an execution, the modern Knights Templar kidnap Lynch in order to find the Apple of Eden, which Aguilar (also played by Fassbender) hid way back during the Spanish Inquisition. Templar scientist Sofia Rikkin (Inception’s Marion Cotillard) promises Lynch a new life, as well as a kind of indirect revenge on his Assassin father, who killed Lynch’s mother and left Lynch to a life of aimless criminality. In return, he’ll cooperate in Sofia’s search for what she promises is a “cure for violence.”

The idea that this could sound anything but absurdly sinister is a little hard to swallow, even before we learn the other Templars’ true, more outrageous agenda. Despite this, Lynch’s emotional journey and tense relationship with Sofia is the strongest part of Assassin’s Creed. Lynch could easily be played as a stock cynical anti-hero in the vein of Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken or Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, a wisecracking tough guy who’s suddenly forced to save the world. But Fassbender’s patrician bearing and straight-faced delivery makes him seem more weary than angry, and more lost than nihilistic. Even his most awkward lines (“I’m an aggressive person”) feel like the transparent mask of someone who’s learned through hard experience to keep people at arm’s length.

It’s never clear how much Lynch should actually trust Sofia, or how much the audience is supposed to sympathize with her. She’s written as a compassionate and well-meaning foil for her callous father (Jeremy Irons), an example of how altruistic scientific passion can be perverted by ideological extremism. Where the Templars want to outright control humanity, she hopes to gently nudge it onto a better, kinder path. But her blithe references to the eugenics-tinged theory of hereditary criminality, combined with Cotillard’s steely composure, suggest a colder and more manipulative figure. She usually ends up sounding like an unusually affable supervillain, which is still far more compelling than the sneering, stereotypically arrogant Templar leaders.

It would be impossible to match the games’ elaborate historical tourism beat for beat, and the filmmakers simplify Assassin’s Creed’s convoluted backstory in a way that’s admirably legible, emphasizing elements that would feel tedious or awkward in games. At times, though, they risk boiling the series down into something too generic. Assassin’s Creed’s Knights Templar are interchangeable with any other Illuminati-esque shadow government that wants to rule the people for their own good, and the modern Assassins are mostly non-entities whose only power comes from the Templars’ remarkably boneheaded security plans. If you’ve decided to gather a bunch of deadly warriors in a common facility, and then leave them free to swap information and plot their revenge, maybe at least don’t fill meeting rooms with their specialized weaponry? And there’s not much the filmmakers can do to make the Apple of Eden, a laughably overpowered game weapon that can apparently obliterate the human mind, into a less ridiculous McGuffin.

One of the filmmakers’ best tactics is simply to make Assassin’s Creed worth looking at, no matter what’s happening. They’re sometimes a little too in love with their cinematography, particularly a series of swooping aerial transitions that follow an eagle. Yes, it’s the series’ mascot, but the bird practically has its own subplot. At the same time, the film’s lingering shots of characters and scenery give it an unexpected weight, especially because of the careful attention to lighting and texture — from the soft gray weave of Templar prisoners’ uniforms to Aguilar’s densely gathered robes.

Aguilar’s storyline is more punctuation than subject, and despite the film’s implicit critique of religious intolerance and imperialism, the Inquisition segments don’t reflect the video games’ longstanding love of ancient political intrigue. As a series of nonstop action sequences, though, they’re undeniably striking. The Animus, a stationary chair in the games, is now a huge robotic arm attached to a neural interface. It swings Lynch around like a rag doll as he reenacts a series of scenes from the Inquisition, including some genuinely vertigo-inducing free falls. It’s an interesting change that helps distinguish Assassin’s Creed from other VR-themed movies, even if it’s sometimes used in ways that are more annoying than cool. During Aguilar’s scenes, the film periodically reminds viewers that they’re actually watching Lynch by superimposing the two settings, like a much snazzier version of present-day mixed reality videos. It’s fun the first couple of times — until you remember that people acting out VR scenes generally look like idiots, even when they’re Michael Fassbender.

When the action sequences aren’t emphasizing their artificiality, though, they’re a frequently gorgeous combination of martial arts and free-running. The filmmakers don’t try to deliver the gritty, nail-biting chases of a parkour film like District B13, where every leap is a clear rebellion against gravity. The Assassins’ motion is slick and buoyant, shot just realistically enough to avoid looking like outright wire-fu. It misses an opportunity to inject a sense of danger that wouldn’t work in the games, where you want your character to stick to walls as smoothly as possible. But it’s thematically consistent and full of beautifully shot images, like the Spanish desert contrasting with the stark gray of the Animus facility.

There’s inevitably a hint of shameless money-grab to any film adaptation of a ludicrously popular video game franchise, especially one that specifically appeals to people who must uncover every secret in the mythos. Still, Assassin’s Creed’s creators have the courage to always take themselves seriously, even when they’re working with material that sounds fundamentally silly. There’s no great leap of faith in Assassin’s Creed, but a surprising amount of the time, it at least finds steady footing.


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