Review - 'Assassin's Creed'
Assassin's Creed is riddled with some pretty glaring problems, but that doesn't stop it from ascending to the top of the throne of video game-based films. I know that sounds like faint praise but even when you strip the film of its dubious "based-off-of-a-video-game" moniker, it still holds its own against its peers in the action-adventure genre.
Assassin's Creed tells the story of Callum Lynch; a convicted killer doomed to die. Instead of being executed, Lynch is whisked away at the last minute to Abstergo, a facility that is able to hack into the memories of people's long-passed ancestors through a machine called The Animus. Turns out Callum is the last link to Aguilar De Nerha, an assassin that came to possess the much sought-after Apple of Eden; an artifact that can control free will.
First let me frame this review a bit. I impulsively checked Rotten Tomatoes to see how the film was scoring and saw it had only managed to notch a dismal 21% on the Tomatometer at my time of reading. The trailers also didn't do much for me, but I'll admit that I am a casual fan of the game series and have enjoyed most of the entries in the storied franchise. So while my expectations were at rock bottom, I still secretly wanted this film to be good, which was pretty much my exact same mindset going into Duncan Jones's Warcraft earlier this year. Warcraft turned out to be a baffling mess and while it had some good ideas and entertaining bits it was what the reviews claimed it to be: a massive, CG-drizzled misfire. Assassin's Creed on the other hand is actually a well-made film with ideas that are successfully conveyed from the game in a way that is palatable to movie-goers.
Seeing critics so lazily dismiss Assassin's Creed with the same rote comments they've scribbled down countless times before is frustrating. If I had a dime for every time a critic said: "this feels like watching a friend play a video game" I'd be rich. I feel that there is this preconception to expect that a film based off of a video game is going to be bad. Great stories are everywhere and have been told through countless mediums, and guess what? Said mediums do not exclude video games. I'd be ill-advised if I thought all critics actively dismissed these types of films or go into movies wanting to hate them, but I do get the sense that films like Warcraft and Assassin's Creed are fighting an uphill battle. Anyway, that's a rant that I might expand upon another day.
Assassin's Creed packs a ton of mythology into its two-hour run-time, and while its motivations are sometimes unclear, it is almost always a compelling watch. I had fun figuring out the various mysteries of the plot and admired that the film didn't feel the need to spoon-feed me exposition, instead opting to have me figure it out on my own. The film is also paced exceptionally well. I remember being a bit let-down when it was revealed that the film would only spend about 20% of its run-time in the past, but this didn't turn out to be an issue as the present-day portions are just as compelling.
I loved how the film sets up this historic rivalry between the Assassins and the Templars. Director Justin Kurzel presents the audience with a rich world that feels lived-in and I believed that these two factions had been battling it out for centuries. The film is also very well-balanced. The modern-day segments are more contemplative and filled with menace and intrigue while the sequences that take place in the late 1400's are devoted mostly to impressive, stylish action.
My problems with the film lie mainly with its characterization. There is a suite of fine actors on display here, yet none of the characters are all that compelling nor do any of them have significant arcs. The acting is fine, it's just there's not enough character development. Michael Fassbender plays Callum Lynch/Aguilar De Nerha; who is an unlikable blank-slate of a man. It's good that the film's overarching story is interesting, otherwise I wouldn't have cared about his mission at all. I felt like any hope at meaningful character progression was cut off when Callum is abruptly jolted into the past before we even really get a chance to get to know him. It would have been far more effective if we had been provided a better sense of who Callum was, then we as an audience would be more interested in his reactions to being thrust into a vastly different setting.
Marion Cotillard plays Sophia Rikkin, who is probably the most interesting character in the film due to her internal and external struggles with morality. Jeremy Irons, who plays Sophia's father and the CEO to Abstergo is fine as well, but he also doesn't bring anything new to the table. Brendan Gleeson has a borderline cameo appearance in the film and isn't allowed to stretch his legs at all.
Another thing that rubbed me the wrong way was the Animus itself. Callum is strapped into this machine that basically resembles a huge robotic arm and is supposed to help simulate his movements as he parkours throughout the Spanish cities of the late 1400's in the mind and body of Aguilar. Callum is constantly climbing ledges and running on walls and it all looks quite cool, but when we cut back to see how the machine is moving him around, it isn't convincing enough and above all felt unnecessary. They could have just had him lie back and strap on a helmet to relive Aguilar's experiences, but I guess that just wasn't cinematic enough.
This brings me to the action, which is doled out appropriately throughout the film and mostly takes place in the 1500's. The action sequences are shot expertly, though there are some annoying quick-cuts and it can be jarring when the film cuts back to present day mid-sequence to see how Callum is simulating Aguilar's moves. Overall though, the film is a competent actioner and there is some truly excellent stunt-work on display.
In addition to having competent action, Kurzel brings his unique visual style to Assassin's Creed, and it's one of the main reasons this should be seen in a theater. Kurzel likes to kick up a lot of dust and play with lighting and silhouettes in ways that I've never quite seen done before. If you've seen Kurzel's previous film, Macbeth, you'll have a basic idea of what to expect, only here it's displayed in a much larger sandbox. On top of this; the cold and atmospheric score composed by Justin Kurzel's brother, Jed Kurzel, is quite good and suits this film's general sense of doom-and-gloom perfectly.
It makes me a little sad that this film isn't getting a lot of love. I'm not saying it's great, but it's better than what you're likely hearing. What Assassin's Creed lacks in characterization it makes up for with an interesting story, strong action and an undeniable sense of style.