Movie Review: Assassin’s Creed

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  • Director: Justin Kurzel
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons
  • Screenplay: Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper, & Bill Collage
  • Based On the Video Game by: Patrick Desilets, Corey May, & Jade Raymond
  • Music By: Jed Kurzel
  • Cinematography: Adam Arkapaw
  • Running Time: 115 Minutes
  • Premiered: December 14, 2016 (USA)
  • DVD Release (USA): March 21, 2017

Synopsis: When Callum Lynch explores the memories of his ancestor Aguilar and gains the skills of a Master Assassin, he discovers he is a descendant of the secret Assassins society (From IMDb).

Review: Personally, I have never played the Assassin’s Creed video games; though I did watch my brothers play one of the numerous versions. As such, I do not have much understanding about the video game story or characters. I know enough about the Assassin’s world that I could give an accurate description of the animus. Thank you Wikipedia fan pages. Once the trailer debuted, I knew I wanted to see the film because I am always willing to watch unique science-fantasy stories. I should preface this by saying that I hold movies based off video games to a different standard than other science fantasy films; someone will always express displeasure over the big screen adaptation. Few video game movies ever live up to the hype and expectation; Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was at least comical. However, I am a fan of the Prince of Persia movie. Going into the Assassin’s Creed movie, my only expectation was to be entertained.

Instead of doing a straight adaptation, Ubisoft decided to create a new narrative for the movie. While the story contains elements from the video games, the film contains new characters and narrative arcs. After the murder of his mother, Callum Lynch embarks on a life of criminality and constant subterfuge. Thirty years later, the past finally catches up with Callum and he is condemned to death row. Callum is legally dies after a lethal ejection. However, he awakens the next day to discover that a shadowy organization called Abstergo Industries saved him. He soon discovers that Abstergo’s motives are far from altruistic and they forcibly enlist him into an experimental research initiative called the Animus Project.  Created by Sophia Rikkin, the Animus Project allows people to enter a virtual world and relive their ancestor’s memories. Thus imprisoned, Callum is promised release if he cooperates and willingly enters the Animus. Once in the Animus, Callum relives the memories of his centuries-old ancestor, Aguilar de Nerha an Assassin during the Spanish Inquisition.

Abstergo hopes to use Callum’s ancestry to uncover the location of an ancient and powerful artifact, which Aguilar hid in the 15th century. However, Callum uncovers some information on his own, including the true identify of his captors. This leads to the main conflict of the movie: Callum attempting to keep Sophia from uncovering his ancestor’s centuries old secret. While the plot is not in any way realistic, the film is nonetheless enjoyable. The film contains all the elements of a modern day science-fantasy action flick: frantic action sequences, intriguing science-fiction concepts, beautiful cinematography, and world building.

Unlike other video game movies, Justin Kurzel injects Assassin’s Creed with a level of artistry that previous video game adaptations lacked. The film is beautifully shot and is visually pleasing to watch. Fans of the original game will appreciate the polished parkour chases and hand-to-hand combat sequences. Kurzel wanted the film to feel authentic and shot about 80% of the film, including stunts, extras and locations, on camera without using CGI. The film also features a 125-foot drop that Michael Fassbender’s character takes and it is not CGI, a real stunt man performed the drop. This marks the first time in thirty-five years that such a dangerous stunt was performed. As a result of these directorial decisions, the film feels much more grounded and realistic; which makes it slightly more believable.

I would say the main weakness of the film is the lack of a struggle between a hero and a villain. Kurzel, apparently, did not want to present either the Templars or the Assassins in the roles of protagonist or antagonist. In his view, both sides make legitimate arguments. While this is a good concept on paper, it does not translate well on screen. A movie about a centuries old struggle between two organizations requires a hero and a villain. Otherwise, the story becomes bogged down with heavy-handed narrative manipulations intended to make both sides appear sympathetic. Which, unfortunately, happened in this film. In the video game, the Assassins are the “heroes” and the “Templars” are the villains. The director and the screenwriters should have appreciated this fact and made the main characters more likable and hero like.

Callum and Aguilar are both depicted as remorseless killers. The main difference between the two being that Callum committed crimes in order to survive while Aguilar pledged to sacrifice his life for the Assassin Brotherhood’s cause. While the narrative creates a good contrast between the pair, their differences are used as a kind of benchmark during Callum’s journey of self-discovery and not as a point of dramatic tension.  Unfortunately, the film only reveals minimal glimpses into Aguilar’s life during the Spanish Inquisition, which was the biggest missed opportunity in the narrative. Since the film is all about uncovering Aguilar’s secret, I was surprised the narrative did not spend more time in his timeline. Callum’s journey follows the familiar hero story; a reluctant person discovers his true purpose and attempts to redeem himself by embracing a higher calling. While Aguilar’s story revolves around a frantic stream of action heavy vignettes with minimal nuanced character development. The result of this is that the story lacks a deep emotional connection to the main character because the audience does not have a reason to care about Callum/Aguilar succeeding against the Templars. A character driven film needs a compelling hero.

Unfortunately, most of the other characters in the film suffer from a lack of development. Very little screen time is devoted to exploring character backstories or the overarching Assassin versus Templar conflict. Other than Fassbender, Marion Cotillard receives the second most screen time and development as Animus Project director Sophia Rikkin. Sophia is more fleshed out than the other supporting characters, but is still rather forgettable. Cotillard is an extremely talented actress, but she was given a complex character.  Instead of being a fully defined character, Sophia is used more as a symbol for the ambiguous moral area that flits on the outskirts of the otherwise black and white conflict between the Assassins and Templars. She is neither good nor bad, just confused and trying to do what she believes is just. Perhaps the most electrifying scenes occur when Cotillard shares the screen with Jeremy Irons, playing Sophia’s father and Abstergo CEO Alan Rikkin. Regrettably, Irons’ role is more of a cameo and his appearances are brief.  Ariane Labed is underutilized as Maria, a member of Aguilar’s order. Labed appears in the first major action scene and is not given any development beyond an illusion that she is intimately connected to Aguilar.

Overall, Assassin’s Creed is definitely one of the best video game based films to be made at the moment. Lara Croft is getting a big screen reboot, hopefully it will surpass the quality of the previous adaptation. Like I stated above my only expectation was to be entertained, and the film did not disappoint. Regardless of the problems with the narrative and characters, the film was a solid science-fantasy adventure. Thankfully, the film never dragged so I did not find my mind wandering and focusing on the flaws. If you are a die hard fan of the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise, then you will probably be disappointed in the film. However, if you are simply looking for a solid science-fantasy film with decent acting, then the film delivers.

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