Friday 20 January 2017

Review: I tried to find the good in Assassin's Creed but there wasn't any

Spear and loathing: Assassin's Creed is a howling mess 

Assassin's Creed
Director: Justin Kurzel
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons
Running time: 1hr 55mins

On paper, and certainly by recent blockbuster standards, Assassin's Creed looked for all the world like a sure-fire hit. Australian director Justin Kurzel made 2015's austere but visually stunning adaptation of Macbeth and, before that, Snowtown, a smart and unsettling serial killer movie that should be far better known than it is. Then there's that cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Kenneth Williams - a perfect mix of almost A-list talent and bravura character actors. Throw in a decent budget of a reported $125million and it's a home run all the way for this long-awaited video game adaptation, right? Um, no. Somehow we've ended up with a howling mess. It's like assembling a football team featuring Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, managed by Jose Mourinho, and seeing them get turned over by Hartlepool United - shocking, disappointing and pretty much unthinkable.

So where does it all go wrong? The biggest problem is the script and what passes for a plot. I've been trying to grapple with the storyline since seeing this last weekend and I'm still not sure I fully understand what was meant to be going on. Fassbender's character Callum Lynch is put to death for murder in a US prison but is saved by Cotillard, who runs a company searching for an artefact called the Apple of Eden. This magical MacGuffin will help put an end to all violence, but Cotillard and her allies are fighting an eons-long battle against the Knights Templar, who also want it (for nefarious reasons or something). To find out where the Apple is, Fassbender has to be strapped into a machine, called the Animus, which enables him to travel back in time 500 years to see through the eyes of his ancestor Aguilar (Fassbender again), a member of the Assassin's Creed who also fought against the Knights and... oh, honestly, I give up.

One of the things I enjoyed most about Kurzel's Macbeth (which also starred Fassbender and Cotillard) was its simplicity - how he was able to pare back Shakespeare's tragedy to the bare bones without losing too much of its power or its sense. Why he couldn't have stripped back this convoluted load of old hogwash in a similar vein is beyond me. A hippo breakdancing at a retirement home Christmas party, after one too many sherries, has more elegance than a storyline that is so far beyond clunky you bet the Germans have a word for it. Clünkenscheisse, I'd imagine.

The clumsiness of the entire enterprise can be summed up by the time-travelling Animus machine. Back To The Future had its cool-as-flip, state-of-the-art DeLorean, adaptations of HG Wells' The Time Machine imagined his contraption as a weird and eccentric 'time boat'. What does Assassin's Creed give us? Something that looks like the bastard offspring of the world's crappest fairground ride and an industrial crane.

Cut down to size: Justin Kurzel's Assassin's Creed

The dialogue is equally risible. There is so much exposition here you could stick a flag in it and declare it an independent nation (The People's Republic Of Exposition). Scarily, character's standing around explaining stuff to each other is meant to make your story clearer but it doesn't here, it only makes proceedings ever more murky and impenetrable. At one stage, I started playing an imaginary drinking game - down a shot every time someone says 'Animus', down a shot every time someone says 'Apple of Eden', down a shot every time Cotillard's eyes glaze over as she loses the will to live...

And while I'm sticking the boot in, the visuals aren't great either. Last year gave us The Jungle Book, Civil War's airport punch-up and The BFG; if you're making a big-budget film and can't go some way to matching that level of achievement, give up and go home. I know it's meant to resemble the series of video games the movie is based upon, but surely a colour palette that goes all the way from turd-brown to corpse-grey is never a good look, whether you're crouched in front of an Xbox One or sat in a cinema. Besides, it isn't a video game, it's a movie, presumably one with ambitions to attract punters beyond those who spend all their pocket money in Game. On Macbeth, it was obvious Kurzel didn't have a pot to piss in but used his locations (which included the Isle of Skye), and some simple visual effects, inventively and effectively. I reckon he'd have done a better job of this on $125 than £125million.

Like most successful actors, Fassbender has always taken the odd beneath-him role to pay the bills and give himself the freedom to do the good stuff (and there is an awful lot of good stuff on his CV). But this makes Prometheus and Jonah Hex look like Citizen Kane. In truth, he doesn't fare particularly well either as Callum Lynch or Aguilar the assassin, as both roles are almost entirely devoid of anything resembling depth. As Lynch, Fassbender looks confused a lot and makes an anguished face now and again, after a particularly bumpy ride in the Animus. As Aguilar he stabs people and, er, that's about it.

So, after all this unbridled vitriol, is there anything in its favour? Yes, Jed Kurzel (The Babadook) turns in another atmospheric score and older brother Justin is simply too good a director to completely cock it up. For all its faults, Assassin's Creed has a strange and woozy dreamlike quality that, when I wasn't sniggering at the dialogue or trying to work out what the fuck was going on, occasionally came close to drawing me in.

When it comes to films based on video games, though, I think I'll stick to Street Fighter.

Rating: W

Assassin's Creed is in cinemas now


  1. I thought you quite liked Warcraft, or did I make that up?

    The first Silent Hill is okay, although not as good as the games, and while I wouldn't go as far as saying they are good, the Resident Evil films are a lot of fun. The first one is a bit tentative but then the series gets increasingly bonkers as it goes on and is all the better for it.

    If it helps, the Animus time travel stuff makes no sense in the games either. It's a pointless narrative twist that adds nothing to the concept of the game, but I've only played one of them -- the pirate one -- so I may have missed the subtleties.

  2. I really did like Warcraft and (IIRC) the first Resident Evil. I only mentioned Street Fighter in a bid to illustrate just how rotten AC is.