Films based on Video Games are usually terrible, so my expectations were quite low. I wanted great parkour, fight scenes, and scenic displays, without the shoe-horned plot getting in the way too much. As a big budget action blockbuster, Assassin’s Creed succeeds most when it focuses on the excitement. It drags however, with too much clumsy exposition and paper-thin characters.
The film begins with a page of bullet points explaining the centuries-long battle between Assassins and the Knights Templar. It also lays out the film’s McGuffin: the Apple of Eden, controller of free will.
Fassbender first appears as an ancient Assassin with other assassins doing assassin rituals. He speaks the small bit of Spanish he contributes to the Spanish-heavy script and I cringed in expectation of hearing more. But the film wisely keeps that character’s dialogue to a minimum.
We’re then transported to a more modern time, signified by BMX stunts and rock music in place of the score. It echoes the young Kirk sequence from the Star Trek reboot but ends on a much more serious and confusing note. We learn that young Fassbender believes his father (dressed like a silly assassin) killed his mother (though it’s not shown). Bad people are coming and young Fass must run and “live in the shadows”.
We then get a third perspective shift of this opening quarter as we now see Fassbender in a prison. He speaks to a Priest before his lethal injection for murder. The constant character swap is disorienting and the priest moment is too long for a character we don’t know yet. The beginning foreshadows the problems we’ll see for most of the movie.
Instead of dying, Fassbender instead wakes up in a futuristic facility for even more exposition. Marion Cotillard’s scientist character needs him to synchronize with his past self to find the apple and cure violence. She works for her father and the Templars, who also want the apple to destroy free will and control the people. They mention consumerism and other ideas that I found more interesting than the heavy amount of explanation.
The idea that Cotillard’s character wants the apple for good is supposed to work as a point of either mystery or tension. It links up with later reveals that I won’t spoil, but the setup relies on confusion of the premise, rather than genuine mystery. She’s one of the few characters with an arc, but it’s unfortunately shallow and requires her character to be either stupid, or blinded by science.
Her accent is all over the map and even sounded Irish at one point. I don’t understand why a scientist working with an international organization can’t speak with her natural French accent. Cotillard also tended to pitch her voice up and mostly speak in a forced loud-whisper to achieve whatever it is they asked her to sound like.
After a lengthy setup, the film finally delivers some genuinely enjoyable action. The parkour and combat are the best moments of the film and are impressively shot. Compared to the current meta of action film technology, it was incredibly refreshing to see so much practical work done. The sky above the characters may have been altered with CGI, but the roofs they stood on appeared to be real. People stand differently on roofs than they do a soundstage, because they don’t want to fall to their death. This translated very well to the screen and added a lot of weight and impact to the stunt work. The parkour also benefited from the realistic approach. Wall running, climbing, and patio jumping looked great and felt heavy. You could argue that it lacked enough danger, but this is based on a video game after all. I felt it walked the line of fantasy and realism well enough.
The fight scenes were another highlight. I loved that the camera was usually far enough away that you could easily see the choreography as a whole and understand who was punching whom. There were still the trendy up-close and shaky shots, but they were far less common than in most modern action films
Unfortunately, the action cuts away too frequently to the modern setting in order to show Fassbender mimicking the movements while attached to the VR claw. This was completely unnecessary and only served to distract. I kept wondering how they managed to do room scale VR while his Spanish-self was traveling many miles. Plugging him into a machine while on a bed or chair and never showing it again would have been just fine.
The concurrent past plot of the Sultan/Prince/Apple was barebones, but served to connect the ancient action scenes. Very little time was spent on Fassben-deró and that suited the experience just fine. We don’t learn anything about his assassin character other than his devotion to the creed, fighting skill, and that he might have feelings for his female co-assassin (played fiercely by Ariane Labed). That sounds like a criticism but it suited the experience well enough. The action scenes were linked together well enough and built towards the very satisfying and tension filled middle set-piece (that reminded me of Robin Hood).
Whenever Assassin’s Creed feels like it’s about to reach new heights, the modern-era sections kill the buzz with more confusing exposition as the script tries to hastily justify its ending. The mysteries/confusions start coming together in a way that gave me high hopes for the final portion, but it doesn’t quite fire on all cylinders. Once again the action scenes did their best while the flat characters surrounding it muddled their way to the finish line. The rushed final third made me wonder how much was cut that could have better explained: the other assassins at the facility, the Templars evil plan, and the lackluster final heist.
Overall, the film provides a few impressive sequences if you can handle the clunky exposition surrounding them. The movie manages to capture the look and physicality of the games, but lacks the calmer exploration and stealth moments that many appreciate in the franchise.
I also can’t leave without praising the risks this film takes as such an expensive project. The production team wasn’t afraid to get a little weird and fully embrace the silliness of the lore with 100% seriousness. That’s something we rarely see in Hollywood.
If you can get past the gunk and aren’t offended by this interpretation of the game, you will find some genuinely entertaining action and the most unique take on the action blockbuster you’ll see all year.