It’s usually very satisfying to be able to stand as a lone voice, when the general consensus is one opinion, and proclaim something different. For years comic book films were derided as piffle and bad, until people took them seriously and made actually decent movies. When it comes to video games being made into films however, we’re still a long way off.
After last year’s frankly pants Warcraft, and a slew of other fairly naff movie versions of loved computer games (Max Payne, Doom, Silent Hill, Resident Evil) it would be time for a truly decent one to come out. So, when the team of director Justin Kurzel and stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard were going to be involved in an adaptation of the frankly incredible Ubisoft game, there was reason to be excited.
This is not like their version of Macbeth. The plot is fairly simple; Callum Lynch (Fassbender) is executed for murder before waking up in a cell, which is run by a sinister organisation owned by Rikkin (Jeremy Irons). There he is told he will enter a machine that will send him back to the memories of his ancestor, where he can find the legendary Apple of Eden, a way of controlling free will. All of this is with the help of Rikkin’s daughter (Cotillard).
Let’s not play coy, the film is rubbish. The problem is many fold, but the main one is that it’s two films playing at once. Where as the game had a very little cut-scene to explain the computer program, and then you were back in time, this film spends a very very long time explaining everything so you have two different films. One is essentially Captain America: The Winter Soldier (a good organisations turns out to be a fascist one), while the other is a pretty rad Gladiator meets 300 style gritty action film set, in the Spanish Inquisition (extra points for picking an interesting time period).
The parts in the past are directed brilliantly with the actors talking in Spanish, which helps add to the realism of the ongoing drama, but because it cuts back to the silly parts in the present day there is very little to truly engage you. What’s more, the film is more concerned with setting up sequels than delivering a truly decent film, so you’re left with underdeveloped plot strands and actors who appear great at doing pretty much nothing.
The fact that it pretty much wasn’t set in the past is a problem; because so many films opt for Roman, Greek or Egyptian times, seeing a different time period with great costumes, diverse races and a rich world for like ten minutes at a time is a real issue. Had the film been set almost entirely in the past, the film would have been a triumph. That being said, Kurzel’s commitment to a sweat soaked past is great and those scenes are directed in a way that gets you excited for a Passion of the Christ meets Gladiator style movie that it simply doesn’t deliver.
Then there’s the action. when it comes to Assassin’s Creed there is a lot devoted to the brilliance of Parkour, and with good reason – it’s bloody boss. But, here there is little to really thrill you with the free running stuff, in fact there are amateur productions of Assassin’s Creed that are much better, shot better with cooler parkour, go onto youtube and check it out.
It’s not all bad, the scenes in 1400s Spain are wildly entertaining, and the costumes across the board are very well done; the art direction and cinematography are all beautiful to look at, and Jed Kurzel’s score is suitably enjoyable. The main is problem is the waste of great actors. As a death row inmate who is salvaged, Fassbender is given little to do. It’s not that he can’t make unlikeable people interesting, he basically carved a career out of it (see Hunger, Shame, and X-Men: First Class), the problem is that it’s never really looked at in depth. He’s murdered someone, but we have to wait an hour to find out who – it’s a pimp. But why? Is he noble? Did he have a Travis Bickle obsession with a young prostitute? Was the pimp an anti-semite? Fassbender is given a fairly trite emotional arc going from murderer to assassin, leading a revolution, but really with no real cause. He belongs at the end because the plot needs him to, he forgives his father, because the plot needs him to.
Cotillard, unfortunately, is wasted here; she’s in the film a lot, but she’s wasted. In another film that could have given her room to stretch her evil muscles (we’re looking at you The Dark Knight Rises) she basically plays an enigmatic bob cut dressed like it’s the 80s. She does nothing of worth, and is outdone by those around her because her character is barely fleshed out. Then of course there’s Jeremy Irons on villain form, he’s great, because he treats the whole thing like a pantomime,a turtle necked villain of the highest order and he manages to salvage his scenes.
But what’s worse is the criminal waste of truly great actors – Brendan Gleeson, Michael K Williams and Denis Menochet. So it’s left to lesser performers in the last scenes to salvage the film, in particular Khalid Abdalla, Matias Verela and a very fine Ariane Labed, all of whom are given wafer thin roles.
So what could have been a time hopping franchise that could have done with a different lead each time in a different time period (maybe avoid Pirates, but feudal Japan? Roman Empire? Pre-Revolutionary Russia? Civil War America with a Native American lead?) is a sour, fairly boring, half a good movie half a boring sci-fi rip off, low on energy, high on plot holes. Oh, and Charlotte Rampling is pretty bad in it.
Paul Klein is a Film Studies Graduate from London, former writer at The Metropolist.