This leap of faith falls flat on its face.
It’s that time again, where a beloved game IP gets cashed in as a film. Usually, it signals the end of the line for the series (at least until a reboot), like Hitman before it, and the Tomb Raider movies before that. At least Assassin’s Creed, carried by strong performances and great fight choreography and stunts, goes the way of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and lands squarely in the realm of mediocrity, unlike the other highly-anticipated failure of 2016, Suicide Squad.
Assassin’s Creed finds Callum Lynch, played by an unnecessarily somber, serious Michael Fassbender, a fugitive from an unknown force (later revealed as the Templars) after the death of his mother by his father’s hands. After spending time in prison for a murder, Lynch is placed on death row, but resurrected by Sofia, the daughter of the head of the Templar Order, and a brilliant scientist in her own right (played by Marion Cotillard). He is placed in a machine called the Animus under the pretense of ‘furthering the cause of nonviolence for mankind.’ Rikkin, Sofia’s father, has his own plans for Lynch. The Animus is revealed to be a way to access ancestor’s memories through DNA. The ridiculously complicated contraption forces Lynch to relive the memories of Aguilar, his 15th century Spanish Assassin ancestor.
If this all sounds familiar to you, then you’ve probably played at least one of the games. Unfortunately, the general framework of the movie, with the addition of the fight sequences, are where the similarities end.
And I don’t blame them for trying. The narrative structure of video games is oftentimes inherently fragmented, discordant, and rushed. After all, you’re still stabbing people for points in between cutscenes. So, the director, Justin Kurzel, who does admittedly try his best, doesn’t have much to work with, and has to somehow carry out the gargantuan task of pleasing hardcore fans of the series, movie critics, and the average Joe looking for a fun action romp in a season packed with them. In the end, the movie panders only to the latter group. Through focusing on novelty and visual effects (“ooh, look at the pretty lights and cool machines!”) over the meat of the story, the movie ends up having no heart. There seems to be no reason to root for the Assassins other than a sequence in the first act where they save a young boy from the grasp of the Spanish Inquisition (for abstract political purposes, of course.) There also seems to be no reason to invest in the villains, who mostly Yell Bad Things at the mute protagonist, and have a penchant for burning people. But the way the setting is portrayed, so does everyone else.
It’s not all bad. The fight scenes are reminiscent of the ‘deadly ballet’ style of Ezio Auditore from the second through the fourth games. There are plenty of fan-service video game artifacts. Spanish people speak Spanish, not English with an arbitrary British accent. It’s a step ahead when it comes to action flicks in a lot of ways, but in terms of storytelling, it takes several parkour-leaps backwards. In the end, the title of First Actually Good Video Game Movie is still up for grabs. And unless someone figures out a way to drift between narrative structures the way that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has done for comics, that title isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.