Everything is permitted
The Assassin’s Creed video games are hit and miss. Their format – placing the player in the mind of a character who relives the memories of an ancestor – creates too many layers for the experience to be truly immersive, because you’re essentially playing a video game about a person playing a video game about the cool thing you wish you were doing. On top of that, whenever your assassin protagonist takes the life of a major target in the “past” segments, the background reverts to the Animus and reminds you that you’re not really doing the cool thing. In that sense, despite the twenty-five or so games in the series, AC’s structure actually works better in a film.
Justin Kurzel once again brings Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender together, this time as Sophia Rikkin, the leading scientist of Abstergo’s Animus project, and Cal Lynch, a lowlife who goes from being a poor man’s Clarence Worley to a vital test subject. Abstergo, the company that has puzzled out how to allow people to relive the memories of their ancient ancestors, is (as it is in the game) a front for the Templars, who throughout history have battled the Assassin Order for control of a McGuffin called the Apple of Eden. The Templars claim to want to use the Apple to “cure violence,” but their seemingly bleeding-heart mission is a red herring: the Apple will allow them to control free will, so while they might be able to stop the perpetual war between themselves and the Assassins, possession of the Apple essentially constitutes control of the world.
Cal is chosen as a guinea pig because he is a direct descendant of Aguilar de Nerha, an Assassin who lived in 15th century Spain during a pivotal tug-o’-war over the Apple. In proper AC fashion, a historical figure was the Grandmaster of the Templars at the time (in this case, Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada, played by Javier Gutiérrez). The brutal Inquisition contends with Aguilar and fellow Assassin Maria (Ariane Labed!), who aren’t greatly developed as characters (since the film runs under two hours and takes place mostly in the present) but who are every bit the stealthy, nimble, unhesitating badasses you’d expect the Assassins to be – they even pop off some signature moves from the video games, which are cheer-worthy for fans of the series, but not overt enough to be jarring to the average viewer.
The film does some interesting things with gray area: it’s not clear who the “good guys” are in the beginning, as we only have Abstergo’s word that the Assassins are the ones causing all the violence, but it’s fairly evident to the observant that the Templars/Abstergo have always been the evil megalomaniacs (Rikkin, Jeremy Irons’s character, is introduced in a scene where he plays the piano in a dark room while watching himself give a speech on television – has a good guy ever done that?). The real wildcards are the other Abstergo inmates, most notably Moussa (Michael K. Williams), descendant of a Haitian Assassin adept in the art of voodoo poisons, and Lin (Michelle Lin), who has no lines but whose martial arts speak for themselves. They stage a prison break and are heading to the Animus to murder Cal just as he figures out what’s what and takes the oath of the Assassins (enough to get the audience juiced up both times it happens), which is inspired by/taken from an old Slovenian novel, Alamut, by Vladimir Bartol.
The big question leading to release was whether this movie would be any good, as video game adaptations are not known for being, or even whether this would be the best video game movie ever made (as the AC games are nowhere near the best games ever made, I’m not sure why anyone would expect that, but I digress). But look. The King of Fighters and Mortal Kombat aren’t high quality cinema, but they’re good video game movies. They’re fun, they’re preposterous, and they’re full of entertaining (if thin) characters who do more than just spout one-liners from the source material (Shang Tsung notwithstanding). Assassin’s Creed fits into that pocket, but with a more accomplished filmmaker, which means that while the story takes itself a bit seriously, it’s both aware of itself and able to stand on its own. As a film, it’s mostly a popcorn action flick, but it’s one in which women and non-white people are major players, and wherein the Catholic Church is accurately evil. Try getting that from the ’90s.
I kept waiting for this movie to get bad. Mind you, it doesn’t get a lot better than “good for a video game adaptation,” but it doesn’t get bad. Labed’s Maria, though underused and prematurely removed from the story, is enigmatic, beautiful, and maybe the film’s most interesting undeveloped hero (nothing against Fassbender, but she would have been a fascinating protagonist). Williams, again playing a criminal, not only achieves more than “scarred inmate” status, but gets to be fairly playful and somewhat deep in the process. Cotillard’s character is the one in the center, constantly deciding on her alignment, and although Sophia is a somewhat silly role next to last year’s Lady Macbeth (or most that Cotillard has played, really), her trust in Kurzel’s direction shows. In fact, maybe that’s the best thing I can say about this film: no one ever seems like they don’t want to be in it.
Can the sequel be based on Liberation, please?
Assassin’s Creed (2016); written by Michael Lesslie; directed by Justin Kurzel; starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Ariane Labed, Michael K. Williams, and Jeremy Irons.