Posted on Monday, December 19th, 2016 by Angie Han
Just because Hollywood has arguably never made a good video game adaptation does not mean they will never make one, and Assassin’s Creed certainly has better pedigree than most. It’s got a promising director (Justin Kurzel, Macbeth) and a prestigious cast more in line with an Oscar-nominated Shakespeare drama than a big-budget blockbuster (including Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, who starred in Kurzel’s Macbeth). The source material is incredibly popular, and has the kind of look that people describe as “cinematic.” Plus, the early trailers have been full of exciting Spanish Inquisition-era action. So is this it? Is this the movie that finally breaks the video game curse? Well, the first reviews are in, so you can find out what the critics think after the jump.
The year 2016 has been full of surprises, so in some ways Assassin’s Creed, Hollywood’s latest attempt to mine gold from an industry that rakes in more dough than it does, is a reassuring tonic: Video game adaptations remain plodding affairs. Directed by Australian helmer Justin Kurzel, reuniting with his Macbeth stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, Assassin’s Creed is resolutely stone-faced, ditching the humdrum quips that are par for the course in today’s blockbusters. But this is almost two hours of convoluted hokum that might have benefited from a few self-deflating jabs. “What the f— is going on,” wonders Fassbender at one point. If only you could discern the shadow of a wink.
Shot in somber sci-fi Renaissance tones, “Assassin’s Creed” has a “Masterpiece Theatre” cast that’s ten times classier than it needs, it cost more than $150 million to make, and it’s deeply self-serious about its long-ago-and-far-away setting: 15th-century Spain during the Inquisition, which means a lot of solemn religious dogma and burning at the stake. Fassbender takes on the role of Callum Lynch, a modern-day criminal saved from execution and forced to enter the memories of an Inquisition-era Assassin, as if he were playing Neo from “The Matrix” crossed with Hamlet. His every tragic gaze and saturnine grimace tells the audience that this isn’t just some glorified dystopian joystick ride — it’s real drama! Except that it isn’t. In “Assassin’s Creed,” Michael Fassbender is like the ultimate special effect. Just by showing up, he confers respectability on two hours of semi-coherent overly art-directed video-game sludge.
It’s not as if this represents a major comedown from Kurzel’s Macbeth, which also ran out of steam (though not mist) by the halfway mark. Like that Shakespeare adaptation, Assassin’s Creed is most compelling when Fassbender and Cotillard whisper at each other in close proximity. Both actors have such adult intensity that their participation in a juvenile fantasy (replete with simultaneous hood-flipping and at least a half dozen dramatic dives from great heights, along with the aforementioned self-satisfied libertarianism) becomes a source of bizarre fascination—for a little while, anyway. Assassin’s Creed pushes their charisma to the limits, then stabs it bloodlessly and jumps off a building.
There’s inevitably a hint of shameless money-grab to any film adaptation of a ludicrously popular video game franchise, especially one that specifically appeals to people who must uncover every secret in the mythos. Still, Assassin’s Creed’s creators have the courage to always take themselves seriously, even when they’re working with material that sounds fundamentally silly. There’s no great leap of faith in Assassin’s Creed, but a surprising amount of the time, it at least finds steady footing.
Assassin’s Creed is something of a passion project for producer/star Michael Fassbender, who shepherded the film through the development process for the better part of five years. So why does Fassbender’s performance come across as so damn bored? That’s only one of the mysteries of this half-baked videogame adaptation, alongside “How can a movie have this little personality?” and “Who thought ‘cover the screen with so much dust and sand that you can barely see anything’ is an a-OK design choice?”
Few studio offerings of this scale so proudly express the violence of their creative process, so openly confront their genetic makeup in order to become something better than what was written for them. Declaring “Assassin’s Creed” to be the best video game movie ever made is the kind of backhanded compliment that sounds like hyperbole, but the description fits the bill on both counts. Regardless of what you call this peculiar, arrestingly uninviting nonsense, the fact of the matter is that it’s the only blockbuster of 2016 that left me desperate for a sequel.
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It is rare to see a movie like Assassin’s Creed trip over itself by focusing on all the wrong elements. If I told you that the movie was about a member of an assassination cult in 1400’s Spain who ran around on roof tops and engaged in all kinds of lethal stunt work to procure an important item, you’d probably say “Hey, that doesn’t sound so bad!” But, the movie, which I assume is faithful to the game on which it is based, creates a secondary layer of storytelling which sucks any interest out of the proceedings by focusing on the sizzle rather than the steak.