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Assassin's Creed
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by Jay Seaver

"Doesn't play."
1 stars

Not being much of a gamer, my entire history with with the "Assassin’s Creed" franchise has been seeing previews for the games before movies at a film festival that their developer sponsored, and from those clips you’d never know that it was about much more than 15th-Century parkour. Movies and games have been built on less, but sometimes the problem comes when they’re built on more - in this case, a dreary present-day story that renders the fun bits moot while wasting a whole slew of talented actors.

In both 1492 and 2016, the Knights Templar are searching for the “Apple of Eden”, which allegedly contains the genetic code for human free will; possessing it would allow them to place the entire world under their complete control. In modern days, Templar Rikken (Jeremy Irons) is seeking it by faking the execution of murderer Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender) and then using a device created by his daughter Sofia (Marion Cotillard), “the Animus”, to read his genetic memory to find where Aguilar (Fassbender), a member of the Assassin’s Creed that opposed the Templars, hid the device five hundred years ago.

You see the problem here: All the exciting things happen in flashbacks whose outcome is fairly easily deduced from the start - maybe not the details, but those are kind of unimportant - leaving the present-day material to try and make finding the location of the Apple interesting. Seemingly by accident, it inverts the way video games work, where the action sequences involve and stimulate the player while the cut-scenes in between give him or her a few moments to rest while dumping exposition; by metaphorically taking the controller out of the viewers’ hands, the talky bits are now expected to carry the story, and they can’t for a couple of reasons.

First, the story is lazy and thin as heck; while it doesn’t feature the constant pointless reversals of many other video games turned movies, the filmmakers make almost no attempt to establish motivation, history, or personality for these characters. Take Lynch; between a flashback to 1986 and the present day, he somehow winds up in jail for capital murder after killing a pimp, and that’s all we know about him. He’s supposed to be the protagonist, but we’ve got no idea if he’s a violent recidivist, a man tortured by the weirdness that his out-of-the-picture parents got him involved with, or a guy who fought off a violent criminal and was let down by the criminal justice system. He’s a complete blank, matched by Marion Cotillard’s Sofia, who doesn’t use the same sort of supervillainous vocabulary as her father, but doesn’t get much chance to parlay the moments of her not being a complete monster into anything resembling a personality.

It gets worse when you get down past the level of the main characters; there are a whole bunch of other folks meant to be important around the climax who as near as I can tell don’t even get names until the end credits. There are some impressive names in those credits - Charlotte Rampling and Brendan Gleeson, for instance - and folks who aren’t so well-known but have impressed in much better movies, like Essie Davis from The Babadook, and Ariane Labed from The Lobster, though most are limited to walk-ons, with Abed the exception, and she only gets to be “the other Assassin” in the flashback action. There’s a lot of unwarranted leaning on familiarity with and fondness for the games’ stories, with lingering shots of characters and items that are likely familiar to the fans but which those of us who just see movies are given no reason to care about. The Assassin’s Creed of the title comes across as a hollow attempt to sound fierce and principled, and the attempts to add depth by discussing the factions’ plans to eliminate or safeguard free will would sound weak and half-baked even to the writers of awful-but-pretentious anime.

(And how weird must it be in the games, where I imagine a character could be spouting off about free will one minute and then literally be controlled by someone with a joystick the next?)

All of that might not matter if the stuff that the people come for, the folks climbing and jumping around feudal Europe, was as thrilling as it’s supposed to be. It is not. That the story impact of these pieces is neutered by presenting them as past-life flashbacks whose outcome is predetermined (we know that the Templars won’t get the eye and Aguilar must survive to reproduce if this information is in Cal’s DNA) is bad enough, but director Justin Kurzel uses this flashback structure to handicap the very presentation of the scenes, rather than boost them: They never seem like Aguilar’s memories in terms of being from his perspective, but instead are shot and cut like any modern action sequence - and while they don’t need to literally be point-of-view shots, everything about them, from how they're presented in the story to the fluid movements the free-running characters move to the unusual environments, would benefit from being more Jackie Chan and less Michael Bay. What shots do have that feel seem to be from the perspective of falcons that I gather are a thing in the game but just seem random here. The excessive cutting occasionally brings the audience back to the present, trying to make Fassbender being yanked around by a crane as his movements match the replaying memories cool, but it’s not worth cutting away from what is actually some pretty good stuntwork for. It could be - there seems to be a story thread about the villains tapping into Cal’s genetic memory making him a more formidable opponent, but that doesn’t get much attention, much like the filmmakers seem to forget to show how making Cal relive memories is going to get Sofia and her people any information.

Maybe all that works if someone has played the games and read the tie-in novels and such, but this is a pretty expensive movie if the filmmakers are only targeting that audience. If not, it’s just a frustrating mess, squandering an excellent cast, a few neat concepts, and some potentially great action, another data point suggesting games can’t make for good movies, even though it’s problems are more terrible execution than awful source material.

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originally posted: 12/31/16 13:02:27
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User Comments

12/31/16 Bob Dog Yep, it's bad, and not the fun kind of bad. 1 stars
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  21-Dec-2016 (PG-13)
  DVD: 21-Mar-2017


  DVD: 21-Mar-2017

Directed by
  Justin Kurzel

Written by
  Bill Collage
  Adam Cooper
  Michael Lesslie

  Michael Fassbender

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