Assassin’s Creed is exactly the type of movie you would expect from the team who had previously made a gritty version of Macbeth. It’s very serious, it looks gorgeous, and there are lots, and lots, and lots of shots of people staring and doing serious acting. It’s a film that’s so serious that a lot of it takes place in darkened rooms where you can barely see what’s going on – don’t go and see it in 3D, where the glasses would make it even darker.
The film begins with a childhood flashback for lead character Calum Lynch, played by Michael Fassbender, before we meet him the present day, where he’s executed for committing murder. Of course he’s not really killed, and he wakes up in the Abstergo complex. That, sadly, is about all we learn about Calum, and we learn even less about his alter ego, Aguilar, which leaves the movie with a strange imbalance where we know a lot more about the bad guys that the good.
Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Irons get to do the majority of the speaking and handily become the most fleshed out characters, but Fassbender’s Aguilar barely utters a word during the film. French actor Denis Ménochet also gets a lot of screen time, even though he’s just Sofia’s bodyguard, to the point of getting what appears to be a loaded, heartfelt speech that telegraphs a plot twist that confusingly never occurs.
Similar to last year’s Warcraft movie, knowing the video games helped a lot, as many story elements are lifted directly from the games with very little explanation. It left my movie-going companions bewildered, describing the film as “a bit of a mess” afterwards.
However, I have to say I absolutely loved it. This is not wise cracking Ezio style romp, or a swaggering Edward Kennedy story, but director Justin Kurzel and producer Fassbender have wisely decided to tackle the movie as a drama as opposed to a CGI punch fest. By dialling back the humour (Fassbender makes one, acid-laced joke in the whole movie) and treating the subject with a more revered tone, they have managed to avoid many of the cheesy traps other videogame movies have fallen in too. The insistence for realism may be taken a little too far for some – all of Aguilar scenes are in Spanish with subtitles – which does jar a little when the movie throws in a big CGI scene, but the majority of the tone is just right.
As revealed before release, it spends the majority of its time in the present day, with just three long fight sequences set in the past. You may think that with so little time spent in the past, the movie has missed what made the franchise so great, but that’s not so. Each visit to Spain is a huge fight sequence (with very little assassination, perhaps in a nod to the later games), and the second of these is like an Assassin’s Creed greatest hits.
Execution poses are thrown, walls are run, there’s an excellent aerial shot of some assassins leaping from beam to beam, and I may have made a little cheer when I spotted a crate hanging from some ropes for no reason, just like they do in the games. The iconic eagle features heavily and yes, there’s even a sequence where we follow it flying around a tower with the city spinning below, just like it does in the game when you unlock a bit of the map.
As the movie works towards its climax, it does lose focus. There is a scene with Calum standing in a wrecked Animus that really confused everyone else I saw the movie with, but again, I actually felt it was a lovely Easter egg for fans of the games. Additionally, the last ten minutes of the film really did not need to exist and are there just to set up the sequel.
The MacGuffin, the Apple of Eden, is the most pointless and annoying thing in the film. We are told the Templars need it in order to rule the world, that it will stop all violence, but we are not told how and it just glows a bit when we eventually see it. Unlike the game where your path to your goal is played out over fifteen or so plot points, Calum can simply jump to the last memory sequence to find the Apple, which makes you wonder why he bothered entering the previous memories.
Previous adaptions of video games have gone for campy fun, with Prince of Persia and the recent Warcraft movie as example, but only Resident Evil has so far managed to turn that into regular box office success. Assassin’s Creed takes a different path, using the base mythology from the game but interpreting it in a different, much darker way. As far as we know, our nominal hero is a cold blooded murder, rather than Nolan North, the friendly bartender from the games. Cotillard is steely as Sofia, and there is support from acting heavyweights Charlotte Rampling and Brendan Gleeson, a cast that many movies would kill for.
It might be messy for those who don’t know the games, but if you do and the idea of Assassin’s Creed done by the team who made Macbeth appeals to you, then you’re going to enjoy the film. If you wanted slapstick stabbings and computer game shenanigans, then look elsewhere. Oh, and that robotic new Animus? That should definitely show up in the next game.