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Film Review: Assassin’s Creed

Assassin’s Creed (2016; Directed by Justin Kurzel)

One year prior to the release of 20th Century Fox’s distinct but patchy big-screen adaptation of the popular action-adventure video game series Assassin’s Creed, its director Justin Kurzel, cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, and stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard collaborated on a dynamite cinematic take on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth that was one of 2015’s finest films. The clear next step for this core of creatives after an invigorating version of one of the pinnacles of the English literary canon was, quite obviously, a sci-fi/historical-fiction blockbuster potboiler with undertones of eternal Manichean dichotomies, pulpy hidden-past conspiracism, and creepy pure-blood genetic determinism. Assassin’s Creed is absurd both on its surface and in its depths, but Kurzel and his team treat it with the same serious-minded sincerity they accorded the great Shakespearean tragedy a year prior.

I can’t claim to possess any helpful familiarity with the Ubisoft game series on which Assassin’s Creed is based, though its acrobatics-and-combat gameplay and time-bending concepts do resemble the Montreal-based game studio’s previous platform hit, Prince of Persia (also adapted into a much worse film several years back). The film introduces and re-affirms its core concept several times, though, so it’s hard to miss: two secretive orders – the shadowy, cult-like Assassins and the patrician, theocratic, elite-entrenched Knights Templar – battle throughout history over the preservation of human free will, which the Templars seek to eliminate through the use of the Assassin-protected Apple of Eden, an ancient artifact of dangerous power and biblical symbolism.

In the modern day, the power and influence of the Templars has eclipsed the Assassins, a cadre of outcasts and criminals whose cultish killer’s “creed” (working in the darkness to serve the light, etc.) is a matter of genetic heredity. The Templar-affiliated Abstergo Foundation, headed by Dr. Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) and his brilliant scientist daughter Sofia (Cotillard), have collected as many descendants of Assassins as they can and imprisoned them in a facility in Madrid. There, the Rikkins and their minions hook these men and women into a sophisticated machine called the Animus and run them through a draining mental and physical process of reliving the genetic memories of their Assassin ancestors. Their goal is to use these subjects to locate the missing Apple in the mists of the past and apply its power to end violence, conflict, and strife in the world by choking off human freedom and self-determination forever.

Their most recent and important subject is a convicted and ostensibly executed murderer named Callum “Cal” Lynch (Fassbender), whose Assassin forebearer Aguilar de Nerha (also Fassbender) was the last known possessor of the Apple before it was lost to history. Flashing back to Aguilar’s experiences in Spain in the tumultuous year of 1492 via the Animus, Cal’s wounded identity (his Assassin father killed his mother and was captured by the Templar, leaving him alone) begins to meld with his Assassin legacy and physical prowess, and exposure to the other Assassin descendants and creeping doubt about the Rikkins’ stated peaceful intentions presses him onto a path of destiny.

As silly as its core ideas may be, Assassin’s Creed has a tremendous amount going for it as a film. Kurzel directs confidently, and there are some memorable visual moments involving a symbolic soaring bird of prey in particular: introduced alongside a song by the Black Angels on the soundtrack as it glides through time between late-medieval Spain and modern Mexico, the flying bird later appears multiplied on a magical, haunting animated ceiling at the Abstergo facility during a tense meeting between Cal and his father, played with great gravity by Brendan Gleeson. Arkapaw’s cinematography is again tremendously beautiful, though it is often saturated by Andalusian sunbeams and digitally colour-graded into moody, dim foncity.

Performance-wise, Fassbender brings intense commitment and ferocity to a blockbuster anti-hero role that most serious actors would imbue with arms-length irony, and memorably sings Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” in an aggressively unstable timbre as he is dragged into another Animus session. Cotillard’s character is buffeted about by the script (credited to Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage, it smacks of repeated rewrites) and I can’t for the life of me begin to explain any of her words or actions in the closing sequence based on what came before it, but, like Fassbender, she really means it, anyway. An international cadre of supporting actors from Gleeson to Michael K. Williams to Essie Davis as Cal’s mother to Ariane Labed as Aguilar’s right-hand Assassin to a fiery, scenery-chewing Javier Gutiérrez as infamous Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada lend potency further down the cast credits, too.

But for a movie based on a consistent, even relentless action game, Assassin’s Creed disappointingly holds back on its action sequences. Cal’s first Animus session drops him into an uninspired Hollywood Western/Indiana Jones-style horse-and-cart chase through the parched landscape of Southern Spain, and the movie’s rote faux-climax features a rebellious Cal and his Assassin brothers and sisters fighting off Abstergo’s security thugs as the Rikkins helicopter away to fetch the Apple. Only a rambling, enervating mid-film escape from Torquemada’s theatrical, Goya-esque auto-da-fé that transitions into a white-knuckle foot-chase and running battle through Seville’s medieval streets, rooftops, and bazaars manages to simultaneously demonstrate the mastery of artful action filmmaking that Kurzel demonstrated in Macbeth and live up to the balletic, wall-climbing, Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling derring-do that makes Ubisoft’s games such a thrill to play. Scored with subtle but driving Spanish-Arabic rhythms by Kurzel’s composer brother Jed, it’s Assassin’s Creed‘s highlight sequence, bar none.

Assassin’s Creed doesn’t spend enough of its running time being fun, therefore. How does it spend its time? On repetitive and sometimes poorly-emphasized world-building exposition, much of which collapses upon even cursory examination. More than that, though, its themes of hereditary legacy and free will vs. determinism play out questionably not only through its fictional characters but through its wider historically-fictive backdrop. Cal’s anticipated turn to defence of his Assassin heritage as redemption for his family trauma doesn’t land quite right, despite being the central thematic fulcrum of the movie; the sense of ambiguity in Sofia’s attitude towards her father’s goals and towards Templar dogma, and its frequent opposition to her dedication to bettering the world through science, is never resolved, and she simply pivots into a sequel-teasing promise of villainy in the film’s abrupt denouement.

But this ambivalence is nothing compared to how Assassin’s Creed utilizes its historical setting in the Spain of 1492. A momentous hinge in Spanish history and indeed for the world at large, 1492 was the year that the Reconquista was completed, with Ferdinand and Isabella’s forces conquering the last Muslim stronghold of Granada and fully re-Christianizing the Iberian peninsula for the first time in centuries; it was the year that Spain’s Jews, who played a disproportionately important role in the cultural and intellectual vibrancy of Muslim al-Andalus, were expelled from the country in one of European history’s numerous anti-Semitic irruptions; and it was the year that Christopher Columbus sailed west from a Spanish port to “discover” America, with all that this would mean for Spanish wealth and imperial prestige and for world history.

Assassin’s Creed draws from the first and last of these vital events (self-serious as it may be, tackling anti-Semitic discrimination through time is a bridge too far for a video-game movie like this, at least for the moment). A key scene involving Aguilar and the Apple takes place in Granada’s Alhambra palace, and Aguilar then travels to Cadiz to give the artifact to the departing Columbus for safe keeping. The Rikkins soon enough deduce that this means that the Apple is hidden in Columbus’ tomb and saunter over to Seville Cathedral to fetch it with ease from the local bishop.

This plot point asks for a logical leap of faith similar to the literal Leap required of Cal in his Assassin training. We are already asked to leave aside the historical fact that the Knights Templar, a religious-military order of great power and wealth in medieval Europe, were dismantled by inquisitional forces in the Catholic Church in collaboration with its closest secular ruler, the King of France. We are informed instead that the Templars and the Church are intertwined, even united, sharing the same leadership, ideology, and short- and long-term goals. But, despite this established collaboration since at least the 15th Century, the Church seemingly knew that the Apple of Eden, the ultimate item of desire for their Templar allies for centuries, was sitting in a key spot in one of its largest catherdrals and didn’t bother to let them know? Add to this the clear missed opportunity for some clever last-act plot misdirection as concerns the Seville vs. Santo Domingo Columbus’ tomb controversy, and it’s a plot element that lands with a splat.

The Inquisition setting is thematically apt, certainly, emphasizing the Templars’ single-minded mission to crush all dissenting viewpoints and freedom of thought (Irons monologues about religion, politics, and consumerism as past grand schemes in this regard) and thus suggesting the Catholic Church’s infamously brutal crackdown on heretics of all sorts as a mere corollary of this more entrenched will. Combining it with the final defeat of rival Islam, understood here as another contending heresy, in Western Europe at the end of the Reconquista, these forces of control come to be refocused with renewed vigour on an entire new hemisphere and its unsuspecting peoples in the era of colonialism that Columbus kicked off with his Atlantic crossing. Assassin’s Creed comes shockingly close to distilling the disparate historical turning points of the momentous Spanish year of 1492 into a coherent and even powerful hybridized statement about human civilization, power and psychology, then and especially now.

There’s a hefty suggestion in Assassin’s Creed, in this over-ponderous, heavy-handed, only rarely purely entertaining movie adaptation of an action-packed video game, that the Templars’ long-running mission to choke off human freedom has already all but succeeded, Apple or no Apple. “The modern world has outgrown notions like freedom,” a senior Templar (Charlotte Rampling) tells the elder Dr. Rikkin. “They’re content to follow.” But what is the freedom represented by the Assassins but a genetically predetermined legacy of violence? In this theme concerning the human tendency to allow our past heritage to become our future legacy, or to poison and undermine that legacy, perhaps there is not such a wide gulf between Assassin’s Creed and Macbeth after all. That this suggestion can even be tentatively made is a testament to the kind of film that Justin Kurzel manages to make Assassin’s Creed into. Maybe he ought to have been making a popcorn movie, yes, but recognized for what it is, this is a film with something to say in between badass assassin killing, even if what it has to say is frequently self-contradictory.

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Categories: Film, History, Reviews
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