Assassin’s Creed (2017)

"What do you mean, watch your step?"
“What do you mean, watch your step?”

“It’s time to make history.”

Directed by Justin Kurzel
Starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling and Michael K. Williams

In 15th century Spain, a group of Assassins set out to protect the son of the last Sultan of Granada, in order to prevent Torquemada, Grand Master of the Spanish Inquisition, extorting from the Sultan the Apple of Eden, which contains the genetic blueprint for free will. As their meeting is interrupted by the neighbours’ garage band rehearsing, we jump to 1986, where adventurous (we know this because he’s practicing some daredevil shit on his BMX) Callum Lynch finds that his father (Brian Gleeson) has murdered his mother. He flees as be-sunglassed goons converge on their home, and in 2016 is in prison awaiting execution.

We’re about five minutes in and we’ve already covered about five centuries.

Grown up Callum (Fassbender) is the spit and image of his ancestor, the Assassin Aguilar, so Dr Sophie Rikkin (Cotillard) and her father (Irons) fake his death at execution and spirit him to Madrid, where they plug him into the Animus, a machine for reading his genetic memories. By regressing him to the life of Aguilar, they hope to learn the location of the Apple of Eden and so, dare I say it, rule the world.

Callum clashes with other captive Assassins, including self-professed ‘voodoo poisoner’ Moussa (Williams), and is given a chance to shank his dad (now Brendan Gleeson), while Sophie tries to get him to sync properly with the memories of Aguilar. He agrees to spite his old man, but then his recalled Leap of Faith breaks the Animus, he communes with his dead ancestors and embraces the Creed, and murders Rikkin Snr at Templar Grand Central to steal back the Apple. Sophie lets him kill her dad, but then swears vengeance, because she’s complicated.

What’s wrong with it?

The Animus 3.0 borrows from the 'alien bad touching' school of design.
The Animus 3.0 borrows from the ‘alien bad touching’ school of design.

We open with a bit of reading about the Apple of Eden, which could much better have been conveyed in dialogue.

I know that history is what it is, but as soon as the first caption of the movie comes up with ‘Spain, 1492’ I knew the Apple was going to end up on the Santa Maria. That it was going to be given into the care of money-grubbing glory hound Columbus was a little more surprising. It’s not like he was anti-establishment or even some sort of stand up guy. As far as we know, he was pretty much an abusive authoritarian with an eye to the profit motive.

The film is full of violent cuts, which does two things: First, it breaks up the franchise’s trademark seamless free running and mucks with the flow of combat scenes. Second, it makes the transition between memory and Callum swinging about on the Animus arm jarring, cutting sharply instead of fading quickly from one to the other.

By allowing Callum to interact with the Abstergo employees and the captive Assassins, the film sets up a scenario to explore the conflict between the rival ideologies of the Templars and the Assassins. And then doesn’t. Like… at all. Given that they are pitched as the heroes, the film works really hard to establish the Assassins as dogmatic, self-righteous murderers and terrorists, so by never really discussing their cause (and presenting their initiation ceremony as something akin to the ‘resistance recruitment’ in 1984 where potential troublemakers are made to swear to throw acid at children in order to expose their viciousness at a later date,) they don’t seem any better than the Templars. Notable in its absence is any mention of staying one’s blade from the flesh of the innocent (or, for that matter, any other aspect of the Creed beyond the maxim.)

Aguilar’s partner is Maria (Ariane Labed), but you really need to be paying attention to catch the name. Half of her dialogue foreshadows her fridging, and then she gets fridged. Still, she’s doing better than Lin (Michelle Lin), a captive Chinese assassin who has pretty much no lines at all.

Within the space of a film, trying to manage both the past and present plots becomes unwieldy.

The soundtrack is a godawful mess, replacing the haunting score of the original with thumping rock at the worst possible moments. History is less of a playground and more of a noisy, unwelcoming small-town nightclub. In the opening scene all of the Assassin’s look skyward at the same time that the theme music kicks in and it really does look as if there’s a band rehearsing upstairs.

What’s right with it?

"Now, honestly there's a solid reason for dumping you in a swimming pool in a body frame."
“Now, honestly there’s a solid reason for dumping you in a swimming pool in a body frame.”

The scenes in which the ‘bleeding effect’ transforms Callum into a badass are very nicely done, with a ghostly Aguilar sparring with his descendent to teach him. It’s also a nice touch that reliving the physically impossible Leap of Faith breaks the machine.

Fassbender is way more than this film deserves, especially when angrily belting out Patsy Cline’s ‘Crazy’ while being dragged to the Animus lab.

Moussa is kind of cool. It helps that he’s played by Omar off of The Wire, but he comes across as interesting enough that I want to know more than the film tells me about him.

The captive Assassins, having all been in the Animus, seem to identify themselves according to their key ancestor. That’s actually a nice touch, although presumably Desmond would be having an identity crisis.

How bad is it really?

"I've done worse, but then that phrase has so little meaning for me."
“I’ve done worse, but then that phrase has so little meaning for me.”

Assassin’s Creed feels like another missed opportunity for a great video game movie. The game series has a lot of meat to it, and in some ways the problem of the movie is that it tries to use too much of that content. In addition, it lacks some of the sense of revelation that the games have, in that everyone seems to know what’s up with the Apple from the get go and there are no forerunners to throw a loop. There’s no mystery; no twist. There’s no grandeur.  The whole thing ends up being kind of… mundane, and as it turns out that the Templars are looking to wipe out the Assassins rather than end all violence, rather petty.

Best bit (if such there is)?

"I'm Aguilar; and you are...?"
“I’m Aguilar; and you are…?”

It suffers from a lack of build-up for those not au fait with the games, but the point where Callum commits to the memory of Aguilar’s Leap of Faith and rocks so hard he breaks the Animus is one of the few bits of the film that really pops.

What’s up with…?

Just in case you weren't sure who the good guys are, Tomas de Torquemada will kidnap a child.
Just in case you weren’t sure who the good guys are, Tomas de Torquemada will kidnap a child.
  • The warrior gene? Controversially invoked as a cause of criminal behaviour in real life, the film attributes Assassin tendencies to a mutation of the MAOA gene.
  • Abstergo’s security protocols? The Animus chamber is full of Assassin weapons, as is the medical lab, and they just leave Joseph Lynch with his hidden blade after Callum declines to kill him. Once the Assassins predictably break out, the guards singularly fail to bring a single gun to the ensuing knife fight.
  • The Assassin hive mind? Seriously, all of the Assassins seem to know exactly what Callum is doing all the time.
  • Sophie’s motives? She allows Callum to kill her father, then swears revenge, but doesn’t seem to be diabolically manipulating affairs to her own ends and Cotillard is a good enough actor I don’t think she just stuffed it.

Ratings

Production values – The film looks pretty good, and the blue-grey colour scheme of the present contrasts nicely with the red-brown of the past. On the other hand, the past is just way dustier than it needs to be, the fights are choppy and there are no smooth, unbroken parkour scenes, which is kind of what you want in an Assassin’s Creed movie. 12
Dialogue and performances – The cast is good, but the script is not. I guess it’s in keeping with the games that there’s a lot of cod philosophising, but it’s kind of disjointed and the Assassins in particular come of as kind of deliberately and unhelpfully cryptic. 10
Plot and execution – The two plots are pretty overstuffed, which means that the action of the film is more functional than fully realised and no-one’s motivation is particularly clear, interesting or sympathetic. 13
Randomness – Fricking Columbus? 7
Waste of potential – As I say, it feels like this could have been a really good movie, but it’s just a bit of a mess. 14

Overall 56%

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