Justin Kurzel/ USA/ 2016/ 116 mins
At cinemas nationwide.
The attempts of the film industry to translate the iconic franchises of the video gaming world into successful movies have been historically fairly woeful. From the universally derided Super Mario Bros. to the ambitious folly of Warcraft last year, the fruits of those efforts have been sour.
Hopes were high that Justin Kurzel’s Assassin’s Creed may buck this trend. Based on a hugely popular series known for its immersive, cinematic scope, moral ambiguity, and century-spanning story-telling, all the elements were seemingly there to be cherry-picked. However, despite being a step in the right direction, the wrong elements have been emphasised.
A career criminal (a sullen Michael Fassbender) wakes up after his ‘execution’ for murder to find himself a test subject at an impossibly high-tech lab. He’s tasked with entering the memories of his ancestor, Aguilar, an assassin in 16th century Andalusia in order to find the mythical Apple of Eden, which Marion Cotillard and her father Jeremy Irons plan to use to eradicate free will.
Fresh from the evocative Macbeth Kurzel’s depiction of the dusty, chaotic world of 16th century Spain is easily the strongest aspect of the film. He adapts the brisk, free-running hack and slash of the games into a breathless rush of choppy edits and balletic butchery. A straight up clash between the Assassins and Torquemada’s Inquisition-led Templars would have serious potential.
Sadly, more time is spent in the present, and like in the games, these are unwelcome distractions from the main event. Every character is underwritten; their motivations buried beneath a nonsensical story varnished with a thin philosophical polish of free-will against determinism. Why Fassbender’s character is on Death Row isn’t even explained until the second act. It asks a lot of the audience to root for a character like that from the off, and despite his considerable talent, he isn’t given enough to work with. Often a chief villain to relish like a finely aged wine, Irons gets so little screen time as to be a virtual irrelevance and Cotillard’s character exists solely as a catalyst for a sequel that now seems unlikely to happen.
Despite all the myriad flaws, as a blockbuster that dips a toe into different territory to the standard fare, Assassin’s Creed offers some short-term thrills, particularly in the vibrant scenes in Moorish Spain. The visuals are married beautifully to Jed Kurzel’s moody score with its Middle-Eastern themes and it leaves you reflecting on an opportunity sadly missed. With more focus, tighter scripting and better characterisation, this could have been the start of a great franchise with practically all of history at its disposal.