Videogame adaptions are not held in high esteem. As a child, the martial arts / slapstick violence of Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter kept me entertained (as an adult the behind the scenes story of how messy the Street Fighter shoot was is better than a lot of Oscar nominations). Most of them have to be taken with a pinch of salt, and it is hard not to feel that any director in charge of a project like a videogame adaption reins it in because videogames are not known for their narrative complexity.
Assassin’s Creed deserves some amount of respect for how straight everyone, including the crew, plays it. It has one hell of a cast and all of them are devoted to an over the top story about finding an ancient artifact with the power to control free will. Present-day Cal (Michael Fassbender) is forced to interact with an ancestor, one of the last people known to have been in possession of the so-called Apple of Eden, in order to help a morally ambiguous bunch of scientists who insist he is not a captive while he lives in a cell in prison fatigues.
The descendants of these ancestors are kept around to assist the Abstergo Foundation with exploring the past. All of them once belonged to the Assassin’s Brotherhood, who protected a young prince during the Spanish Inquisition.
Explaining basic plot details takes longer than watching some films, but for the most part Assassin’s Creed keeps up with itself. No one wants patronising exposition that explains who the goodies and baddies are, but there are times when the flashy parkour and severe stabbing sessions take front and centre over being aware of who we should be rooting for. Marion Cotillard – who is on fine form – plays the scientist daughter of the CEO of Abstergo (Jeremy Irons), and her empathy mixed with her intentions make her completely unreadable, for better or worse.
Fassbender’s Cal is a bit of a douchebag who is quick to just go along with things. He takes to the Animus (the contraption that provokes memories of his ancestor) really fast, which I found to be both jarring and a relief. It is unbelievable how skilled he is so quickly, unless the Animus has some trickle-down benefits from his past, but it also skips cliched scenes of him learning what to do. The film is quick to get to the action.
Justin Kurzel’s previous film was 2015’s Macbeth, also starring Fassbender and Cotillard. It could not be more different – a slow-paced, dialogue-heavy, grim and murky tale set on Scottish moors. To go from that to this shows a trio of artists willing to test their craft at anything from Shakespeare to Ubisoft. The former had its problems too, filled with a few too many stoic soliloquies and an emphasis on visuals that came at the expense of actual drama. When Kurzel nails one aspect, something else seems to falter. Assassin’s Creed’s clarity suffers during hectic moments, and by looking to the future for a sequel, certain characters speak and act with such mystery you have to believe it will make more sense in retrospect (Charlotte Rampling’s Ellen Kaye is particularly bad for this).
It might help that I have never played an Assassin’s Creed game, but the film is one of the higher tier videogame adaptions, with stylish action, a plot that is silly but enjoyable if you leave your pretentiousness at the door, and an absolutely stellar cast. Enjoyment from it might come down to how open a viewer is to over the top action films with obvious flaws – it is what it is, but if, like me, you are a fan of a bit of fantasy with a complete devotion to its source material and mythology, then Assassin’s Creed is worth the time.