What do you get when you take the director of a well-received Shakespeare film, and give him a cast that includes Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, and Charlotte Rampling to make an awards-season film? An action movie based on a video game, of course. Assassin’s Creedmay sit a cut above other films of its type, but director Justin Kurzel can’t do more than dress up the weak source material.
Kurzel directed Fassbender and Cotillard as the leads of last year’s Macbeth, and they obviously admire and trust him enough (and trust in their paychecks) to follow him into this $125 million-budgeted action sci-fi fantasy. The loony premise finds Fassbender playing Death Row prisoner Callum Lynch, who—upon being surreptitiously rescued from lethal injection—learns he is descended from a long line of Assassins, who have been locked for centuries in mortal combat witth the Knights Templar over the possession and whereabouts of the Apple of Eden.
A classic MacGuffin (a plot-driving object that the audience doesn’t much care about), the Apple of Eden holds sway over the free will of humanity. Scientist Dr. Sophia Rikkin (Cotillard) wants to obtain the apple for the Templar Order (rebranded in modern times as Abstergo Industries) in order to eliminate violence from human society. Some would, and do, argue that to do so would be the ultimate act of violence against humanity, in robbing people of free will. Sophia’s father Alan (Irons) has his own, somewhat more aggressive agenda, based on pressure from Templar elders (represented by Rampling).
Finding the apple involves torturously extracting unconscious ancestral memories from Lynch by making him relive the adventures of 15th Century Spanish Assassin Aguilar de Nerha. The complicated but coherent plot tees up many action sequences, whether they be fights among the prisoners and staffers at the Abstergo compound, or the large-scale Inquisition-themed action sequences involving Aguilar and others (even as we watch Lynch writhe in Sophia’s virtual-reality machinery).
In many ways, Assassin’s Creed is what it resembles, just another murky, dramatically anemic video-game adaptation. To see the trailers and posters for it is to dismiss it as such. And yet, there are those stars, carrying you through it all. And some of the trappings, in the 15th Century and the future-now present, intrigue. And finally, there is Kurzel, frequently lending arresting visuals (although, at times, proving he’s not an ideal director of action) that make the dumb action movie feel poetic in choice moments along the way.
In this way, Assassin’s Creed encapsulates the new Hollywood, with an over-abundance of talent wasting time on brain-rotting kids’ stuff. Sometimes these stories entertain anyway through force of will, or even find ways to weave in social commentary. But Assassin’s Creed, despite its style points, fails to resonate on a higher octave than its low hum of dark doings, leaping around, and fisticuffs. It’s the latest film for people that makes it easy for audiences to surf their smart phones and forget to wonder why they shelled out $12 for the privilege.