Assassin’s Creed‘s principal visual motif, that of the same eagle seemingly flying all over the world in multiple different time periods, feels as head-slappingly obvious yet needlessly convoluted as the film it stitches together. Said film, of course, is in the long-standing tradition of movies based on video games that almost invariably fail to attract critical support (the only probable exceptions are the Resident Evil films by Paul W.S. Anderson and Takashi Miike’s Ace Attorney), but this particular incarnation’s failure is more puzzling than usual. Directed by Justin Kurzel, who helmed last year’s lurid but tedious adaptation of Macbeth, and featuring many returning collaborators from cinematographer Adam Arkapaw to lead actors Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, Assassin’s Creed possesses the talent to become a dynamic and thrilling movie. But it feels hampered by many aspects, neither embracing its video game origins nor providing any sort of compelling reason to exist.
Though the movie essentially takes place two timelines, and most of the physical action is set in 1492, it primarily follows the story of Callum Lynch (Fassbender), a convicted criminal sentenced to death, in present-day Spain. After undergoing a fake execution, he is brought to an organization known as Abstergo Industries and, under the supervision of Dr. Sophia Rikkin (Cotillard) and her father and CEO Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), is connected to a device called the Animus. The contraption allows Callum to relive the memories of his ancestor Aguilar, a member of a group of assassins that has continually opposed the Templar Order, so that he may help Abstergo find the Apple of Eden, an ancient artifact that purportedly would allow the owner to control the free will of the entire human race.
Assassin’s Creed is doomed from the start by the way it conveys this complicated premise, muddling virtually every character’s true motivations until late in the film. The scene-to-scene development only complicates matters, introducing characters with abandon and featuring the likes of Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams, and Brendan Gleeson to deliver a few lines of cryptic dialogue and then retreat back into the shadows, leaving Callum and the viewer none the wiser. While this arcane approach would work to a certain extent in a movie more aligned with the almost reverential tone that is developed in the 1492 scenes, a feeling of sterility dominates, and as such the themes of heritage and dedication that Kurzel attempts to conjure feel fully hollow.
As might be expected, Assassin’s Creed‘s strongest moments are the Animus centerpieces. The cuts between Aguilar in the past and Callum playing out his actions in the present quickly grow stale, but Kurzel takes a sort of glee in rendering violence as a series of awe-inspiring moments, enhanced by Arkapaw’s lucid cinematography. From the extended parkour sequences to more silly moments that stick out of the relentlessly serious environment, like Aguilar bouncing an arrow off a stone wall or running on clotheslines, there is some sense of momentum and excitement sorely lacking in the rest of the film.
Assassin’s Creed, unfortunately, is the kind of movie that feels perfunctory. The actors, talented as they are, feel stranded in thankless and uninvolving roles, especially Fassbender, whose most memorable action is singing Patsy Cline’s “Crazy”. By the film’s emotionless and drawn out climax where the action finally bleeds into the “real world”, Callum’s embrace of the assassins feels empty, not because it is at odds with his character, but because he has very little character to speak of. And so it is with the film that revolves on him; there is a veneer of interest, but nothing more.