Movie Review: As long as free will still exists, do not choose ‘Assassin’s Creed’

By Jonathan Shuping

December 23, 2016

Action movie lovers are always on the lookout for the next Matrix, where visionary storytelling meets never-before-seen technology to blow the audience’s collective mind. Inception arguably came closest to eclipsing The Matrix in this regard. Many films have exhibited the potential only to fall short. The latest is Assassin’s Creed. While there are many bothersome and annoying elements in this letdown, I’ll try not to nitpick too much.

Based on the popular video game (and let’s be honest, has there ever been a good game adaptation?*), Michael Fassbender plays Cal Lynch, a death row inmate who we know nothing about other than a brief prologue showing a horrible tragedy from his childhood. Who did he kill and why? Did he have a job? A girlfriend? Cal’s past apparently does not matter because these questions are never answered, though we’re still supposed to root for him. That’s the kind of thing you can get away with in an interactive video game, but in a movie, the viewer is just watching not playing, so there’s a need for backstory or at least some kind of character arc to follow. I’m assuming we’re supposed to want Cal to be redeemed but why? It doesn’t have to be the full Dead Man Walking treatment but you gotta give us something.

Cal’s execution is faked by a mysterious scientist named Sofia (Marion Cotillard) in order to get him off the grid because, while Cal’s past is no big deal, his ancestry is evidently of the utmost importance. This ancestry features (also Fassbender), a member of the Brotherhood of Assassins, a band of hooded figures who are incredibly good at glowering menacingly from rooftops in 15th-century Andalusia. Don’t get me wrong, they look badass and one or two swirling shots of them staring down at those who are about to die might have left me intrigued, but after the eighth or ninth I’m just rolling my eyes. By “synchronizing” Cal’s DNA with Aguilar’s using a machine called the animus, Sofia and her father Dr. Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) hope that he can help them in their hunt for an artifact known as the Apple of Eden, which they claim could “cure violence” but in the wrong hands could also kinda sorta deprive mankind of free will. Again, unless you show me otherwise, I’m going to assume a death row inmate would use his free will to make good choices, so I’m still not jumping on the “Cal’s a hero” bandwagon.

Michael Fassbender as Callum Lynch and Aguilar de Nerha.

When Cal is plugged into the animus he (and therefore we) gets to experience the adventures of Aguilar, fighting the Order of the Knights Templar during the Spanish Inquisition, with the added bonus of Cal simultaneously being “trained” in the arts of the Assassins. The fight choreography in these scenes is pretty decent, with lot’s of rooftop-jumping and even though parkour was not around until the 20th century, I’ll buy that maybe the Assassins were that damn good and practiced their own early version. It’s the general defying of the laws of physics that I can’t get down with. In The Matrix, it made sense because they were in a virtual world, but these are supposedly the actual events from Aguilar’s life on planet Earth. So how does he have these abilities? Is he a superhero? Also, for a movie whose trailer graphics were spattered with blood, there’s surprisingly little gore in the film itself—no doubt in order to stay in PG-13 territory.

Much can be said about the direction of Justin Kurzel (Macbeth), but one thing’s for sure: he does not believe in the effectiveness of a still shot—the camera is constantly in motion, always pushing, tracking, circling and, of course, soaring. We get multiple aerial shots over Andalusia following an eagle whose significance is never explained and there is an ever-present smoggy haze that begrimes every scene. Is the Inquisition burning that many heretics? No, because it’s in present-day Madrid as well. Does everyone in Spain smoke cigars all day every day for the last 500 years? It’s a stifling effect that makes an otherwise cool visual experience somewhat irritating.

The same goes for the Rikkins’ corporate research facility. Really, whoever their decorator is will be going out of business soon because this place sucks. Sofia works in an office flanked by floor-to-ceiling shelves set against a blinding wall of light. How can you pick out what science-y artifact you need when everything is a silhouette? I spent most of these scenes squinting. There are many other genetically-predisposed descendants of violent offenders (though we don’t get to see any other ancestral adventures) being held against their will in a sort of bare-walled concrete prison that looks like it smells like bleach. The test subjects do have a communal area with a light ceiling similar to Sofia’s wall, but on it there is a loop of silhouetted serenely soaring… eagles! (By the way, is this not the worst plan ever? Let’s hold a bunch of assassins’ grandkids captive while training them up to be super badasses. What could go wrong?) Then there’s the “animus chamber” which resembles the inside of a dusty Renaissance cathedral and the animus itself looks like one of Dr. Octopus’s tentacles. This is all in the same building?

Marion Cotillard as Sophia Rikkin and Michael Fassbender as Callum Lynch and Aguilar de Nerha.

For her part, Marion Cotillard is mesmerizing as always. Seriously, I could spend two hours just looking into her eyes and feel I was entertained but, alas, she is not the protagonist so we get way more shirtless Fassbenders than Cotillard closeups. The outstanding Michael K. Williams (The Wire, Boardwalk Empire) feels a little out of place, like he wandered onto the wrong set, but perhaps that’s because he’s the only character who interjects any sort of humor into the humdrum script. There are things you can laugh at in Assassin’s Creed, but the humor is unintentional. As for Michael Fassbender, he looks every bit the action hero part, but, well I don’t want to keep beating the dead character-development horse. The script certainly does him no favors.

I complained in a review last summer about the obnoxious number of sequels that were overtaking the box office, and this is obviously an attempt to start up yet another new franchise. As a very general rule, when unfair things that are not in the public interest occur, 95% of the time money is to blame. Why don’t they do away with all of these meaningless bowl games in college football? Money. Why does Josh Norman play for the Redskins now? Money. Why are there THREE different sizes of Star Wars action figures for my son to ask Santa for? Money. If Assassin’s Creed gets a sequel, it won’t be because this one was good. It will be because it made lots of money.

Star Rating: 1 3/4 out of 5 stars

*Editor’s note: Yes, there has been a good video game adaptation. This one.

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