Sometimes you expect a film to be bad based on reviews, and sometimes that’s proven right. Sometimes though, it’s a surprise, and Assassin’s Creed was for me – it’s great fun and a perfect addition to the multimedia series, even though it’s the epitome of a throwaway popcorn film.
Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender) is sentenced to death for murder after a tough life. Expecting oblivion, he then wakes up at Abstergo Industries, a company run by Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) and his daughter Sophie (Marion Cotillard), where their ‘Animus’ technology accesses a user’s genetic memory. ‘Cal’ is descended from a Spanish assassin, Aguilar (also Fassbender), and is thrown into a new world of warring factions – the Templars and Assassins – as he discovers and experiences the events of Aguilar in 1600s Spain, and wrestles with his position in the conflict.
The Assassin’s Creed games have followed this story since 2007, with their historical sci-fi/action offering a beguiling mix of stealth, intrigue, all-out-murder and hilarious glitches. The throughline of the plots and the recreation of historical periods are what bring me back though, and director Justin Kerzel – teaming up with Fassbender and Cotillard after Macbeth – and writers Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage adapt the basic outline of the series for cinema. The mythology of the games is, to put it nicely, Dan Brown-level splicing of real and fantastical events, individuals and technology, but I love it – and the film is actually simplified so as to offer those new to the series a (mostly) understandable introduction. In other words, if you’re expecting realism or believability, don’t bother.
This is an sci-fi action thriller just like the games, and fortunately, the parkour-inspired fighting is embellished with real stunts, though I’d have liked to see more and with perhaps a little less shaky-cam. The action still thumps though, with the 12A rating disingenuous (throats are slit, arrows and knives pierce skin – just no or little blood) – perhaps a 15 rating might have been worth going for to embrace the bloodshed. As it is, the flawed main plot of hidden heritage, the hero’s “journey” and some gaping plot holes were probably more forgivable as a fan, because I’ve come to expect nothing less, though you may differ.
There are other elements of the games tidied up, with the Animus now less of a Matrix-style bed and more a terrifying crane, helping keep the action propulsive and remind the viewer Cal is flying about in a lab and just visualising everything. It’s silly but makes sense, as it would suffer miserably cutting back to a comatose bloke on a bed. If I’ve got one major bugbear plot-wise, it’s that we don’t spend enough time in the past, nor do we actually see the archetypal assassinations as in the game. This may be deliberate, as we’re on Cal’s journey and not Aguilar’s (novice compared to a fully paid-up member of the creed), but even so it might have added more variety, more depth, and helped flesh out the characters – who are poorly developed in the modern story and totally forgotten in the past.
The amazing, boomy and thumping soundtrack from Jed Kurzel, the director’s brother, is one of the best in a while – the synthesis of electronic music with drums and strings marries perfectly with a Spanish/Moorish feel. It carries the film’s momentum even when everything else slows, and the more considered score in quieter moments retains the main, ethereal refrain – which I still can’t get out of my head. 16th century Spain is shot dusty, smoky and sun-baked, cinematographer Adam Arkapaw excellently contrasting the sandy past with the brutalist, cold and grey modern of the Abstergo facility, all concrete and exposed bricks. However, the fug of CGI hangs over many of the Animus scenes, a shame considering the effort taken to realistically depict the stunts – the effects are haphazard but fortunately not needed too often.
This is definitely not aiming at acting awards – Michael Fassbender produced it and helped get it made, and his dual roles are interesting if imbalanced in favour of Cal. Here he mostly just plays dumb, slowly learning what he’s stumbled into, but there are small scenes where he hints at an unexplored menace, and one spectacularly hammy scene where he completely flips out that feels a bit like the actor trying to burst out of the boredom. Aguilar is really given short shrift though, and it’s that character that Fassbender really could have made interesting – an enigmatic, tattooed Spanish assassin on secret missions! Instead, we learn nothing of his life, and only see him interact with a number of unexplained or expanded others – the film really misses a trick here.
Marion Cotillard engages her best British-slash-French mangled accent as Sophie Rikkin, who only really serves as our source of exposition to start, but who has some interesting shades. However, little development is given to her until right at the end, so this seems a missed opportunity passed up for a sequel that probably won’t happen. It’s refreshing that she’s not a love interest, but a shame the actress’s talents are wasted. Jeremy Irons has fun as Alan Rikkin, bringing his booming, deep tones to a sort-of pantomime villain, and the type of character you’d half expect in such a movie. Charlotte Rampling, usually an indie drama stalwart, adds to the devilishly British villainy with her lead Templar, grimacing in the background – a little more development might have created something a little more interesting there, too.
Of the remaining cast, it’s always good to see Michael K. Williams from The Wire, who plays another assassin descendant at Abstergo with his usual knowing, cool calm, while Brendan Gleeson randomly pops up as a character linked to Cal’s past – only really for one scene, but the actor is interesting enough in his cameo to suggest more of him would have been welcome. Ariane Labed, as Aguilar’s fellow assassin Maria, is another enigmatic character that deserved more time onscreen, and another casualty of the lack of focus on the Spanish plot – a love interest for the assassin who can handle herself could have made for a really interesting side-story, but instead we are expected to care for her when we’ve heard perhaps 10 lines of speech from her.
This film shouldn’t really have been as much fun – the story is poorly handled (in some cases worse that the games are) and the characters are barely given any time to grow. Despite all this, and against my better judgement, I really enjoyed Assassin’s Creed, so if you liked the games and/or action, and can switch your brain off for two hours, you’ll enjoy it too.