By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)

 

Despite the promise of delivering something better than what we’ve come to expect from this particular sub-genre, the curse of the video game movie adaptation continues with Assassin’s Creed, a laboriously self-serious effort that doesn’t have a script to support its meditative, straight-faced approach.

Beginning in 15th Century Spain, we are introduced to The Assassins, formed to protect the unsuspecting world from the power-hungry Templar, who want to acquire an item called the Apple of Eve. This device has the ability to control all free will, so it is definitely something the Templar would love to have in their possession. To further their cause, the Templar employ the services of Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada (Javier (Gutierrez), who uses any means necessary to uncover the location of this very unique ‘Apple’.

The latest addition to this secret clan is Aguilar (Michael Fassbinder), whose blood is fused with that of his fellow comrades as well as the very place he will be trying to protect. The Assassins must ensure that this legendary device doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

Cut to the U.S. circa 1986, where a young Callum Lynch (Angus Brown) sees his life thrown into chaos when his mother Mary (Essie Davis) is apparently killed by his father Joseph (Brian Gleeson), who immediately tells his son to escape as a mysterious group of people arrive on their doorstep. This tragedy sets Callum on a violent path, leading to incarceration and a place on death row.

The adult Callum (Fassbinder again) is seemingly put to death, but later awakens at a fortified research facility located in Spain. Here he meets chief scientist Sofia (Marion Cotillard), who needs his help to ensure the success of a highly secretive experiment that they are conducting. It will involve Callum being connected to a large mechanical arm, and having his brainwaves aligned with that of his 15th Century ancestor Aguilar, which can only be done via their connected bloodline.

As Callum vividly observes a time long gone through the eyes of one of his ancestors, it becomes clear that Sofia, and especially her billionaire father Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), have an alternative motive in connecting their guinea pig with this important member of The Assassins.

Assassin’s Creed may sound complicated, but it’s actually founded on a fairly straightforward plot. The problem arises from the script (noticeably borrowing elements from Strange Days, Flatliners, Brainstorm, and The Matrix), which is muddled and poorly defined, both in its structure and character dynamics. Not enough time is given to those vying for control in its 15th Century setting, while Callum’s own personal journey also lacks detail and purpose. Callum’s whole existence changes with the death of his mother, whom he was very close to, yet we are first introduced to her after she has been murdered. How are we supposed to invest in this young boy’s pain when there has been no presentation in how strong that mother-son relationship actually was.

The exact same problem occurs with his father Joseph (initially played by Brian Gleeson, then by his father Brendan), whom we see for mere minutes before Callum is forced to go on the run. Perfunctory moments revealed later on, showing Callum and Mary together, as well as Callum confronting his despised father, subsequently feel redundant and hollow.

Writers Michael Lesslie (who adapted the recent MacBeth, also starring Fassbinder and Cotillard), Adam Cooper and Bill Collage (both of whom, believe it or not, penned the Olsen twins film New York Minute), are unable to take the immensely popular video game and work it into an interesting, propulsive feature, and fill the venture with some cringeworthy dialogue. Themes and ideas, such as the battle between blind obedience and individual thought, are frustratingly left unexplored.

Australian director Justin Kurzel, who achieved major critical success in his home country with the true life crime thriller The Snowtown Murders, then confidently made the transition to the international stage with his acclaimed version of MacBeth, stumbles with his first mega-budget Hollywood blockbuster. Admittedly working with a second-rate screenplay, Kurzel cannot weave all the various timelines, characters, and plot threads together effectively or coherently, producing a wretched narrative flow that fatally weighs the film down. Compounding matters is a complete inability to inject a sense of fun into proceedings, something movies like this need to make its preposterous subject matter feel remotely palatable. Kurzel and his scribes are either unwilling or unable to accept that you can make a dramatically involving film that also happens to have a sharp sense of humour. The recent South Korean film The Wailing showed you can play with tone and mood to brilliant effect.

Kurzel appears more interested in slick aerial photography (lensed by fellow Aussie Adam Arkapaw) than developing his characters, and the frequent, ‘God’s Eye’ view quickly becomes tiresome, as does the quasi-religious undertones.

The action is both generic and forgettable, but one can’t fully blame Kurzel for this. With the current obsession major studios have with the PG-13 rating (due mainly to the huge amount of money spent on these productions), every action scene is staged, choreographed, and crafted in exactly the same manner. The fear now of showing R-rated violence seriously restricts and inhibits so many film-makers today from being genuinely impactful and innovative. The mayhem doesn’t necessarily have to be graphic and bloody, but the lack of freedom is preventing directors from creating something that is distinctive, exciting, and original. The same three elements are always employed; everything shot in close-up, an incessantly jittery camera, and hyper-fast editing. Imagine how different iconic action films like Robocop, Total Recall, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, and 48 HRS would be if they were made today?

The cast are unable to rise above the material. Fassbinder is hamstrung with a role that offers no range or insight. As I’ve already mentioned, Callum’s backstory is so fleetingly dealt with that there is no emotional core whatsoever. Cotillard struggles with a character that makes no real sense (including a climactic turn that is blatantly franchise-friendly), and her British accent regularly comes-and-goes. Good actors such as Charlotte Rampling (45 Years, The Verdict, The Night Porter, Angel Heart), Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges, The Guard, Calvary), and Michael K. Williams (The Wire TV series, The Road) are wasted, while Jeremy Irons merely goes through the motions as Rikkin, portraying the kind of smarmy and refined villain we’ve come to know him for in recent years.

The video game sub-genre always makes one feel they are in the movie Groundhog Day. One continues to watch them, but they make the same mistakes over, and over, and over again. Even Bill Murray’s character eventually learned the error of his ways. There have been the occasional bright spots, such as Ace Attorney, Yakuza: Like A Dragon, Silent Hill (if you can accept its utter lack of logic), and the unfairly maligned Warcraft: The Beginning, but unfortunately this ambitious misfire sits around that gloomy grey cloud that includes turkeys like Super Mario Bros, Resident Evil, Mortal Kombat, Prince Of Persia, Tomb Raider, Max Payne, and Street Fighter.

The best thing I can say about Assassin’s Creed is that it is definitely not the worst video game film ever made. The notorious Uwe Boll still holds that distinction with his truly deplorable House Of The Dead.

Rating: 1/5

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