By now, it’s old news that big-screen adaptations of videogames tend to be rubbish. Super Mario Bros., Mortal Kombat, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Max Payne, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Warcraft… the list goes on. Are these things flat-out jinxed or what? Because here comes Assassin’s Creed, and as stylish and high ticket as it looks–which it ought to, costing near $200 million—it’s plodding, humorless, astoundingly dumb and blissfully unaware of its own absurdity.
Gamers may wonder how something so awful could be made from an action/adventure franchise so packed with lore, richness, solid storytelling, cool metaphysics and knockout visuals—a saga set on the roofs, in the basilicas and alleyways of Renaissance cities. Non-gamers may wonder how this Ubisoft-produced phenom–nine games, 17 spinoffs—could possibly be so popular. Either way, you may find yourself sitting in a theater watching what’s been done with Assassin’s Creed in a state of utter confusion, provided you’re still awake. The three credited screenwriters, Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage, set lots of the movie in the present (you know, the most boring stuff in the games), in and around a vast, soulless research company called Abstergo. They try to sell us a plot stuffed with Dan Brown-style Da Vinci Code conspiracy stuff, history and religiosity. Come on, guys. We want swashbuckling romps up, down, in, and out of town squares. We want to hurtle across rooftops, effortlessly scale castle walls, and barrel roll our way out of (and back into) danger.
At least the movie shares the games’ central conceit of a secret order of Assassins who have been battling since ancient days with the equally secret order of Templars. The Assassins are humanists who want knowledge to be free to the common man, while the Templars are wealthy, callous spirit-crushers, imperialists who want knowledge privatized so that they can line their pockets. Both sides are desperate to possess the Apple of Eden that, we’re told, contains the DNA of the free will of all humanity. It’s, you know, “the seed of mankind’s first disobedience,” as we’re reminded, as if that’s supposed to make us forget the preposterous notion that free will is a matter of DNA. And if the apple is the real McCoy, the thing that got Adam and Eve hurled from Eden, why isn’t it a real apple?
But never mind; many more Wait, what? moments lie in store. Assassin’s Creed gives us modern-day Templars personified by lizard-like zillionaire Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons, punching the clock) and his scientist daughter Dr. Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard), who together run a Madrid–based rehab facility for criminal hard cases, human lab rats on whom they will inflict any atrocity in a misguided crusade to find a cure for violence. Abstergo is funded by a mysterious group called the Elders, run by a nefarious leader played by Charlotte Rampling, who hasn’t been stuck in anything this terrible since Zardoz.
Meanwhile, handicapped by a bizarre costume and even weirder accent, Cotillard’s chilly researcher hits the jackpot when she gets her mitts on the last in the long line of the Assassins, one Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender), a ripped, sardonic, convicted murderer she springs from Death Row (How? Who knows). This guy is bad, having come up hard, even to the point of witnessing his pops (Brendan Gleeson) slaughter his mom when he was just a child. Gym-shredded, deadly serious, stripping himself of his natural charm and wit but definitely up to the movie’s physical demands, Fassbender looks like he’s wandered into the flick straight from the Uncanny Valley–expressionlessness, spiritless, monotonous. Seriously, where’s Desmond Miles when we need him?
The plot is incoherent—at one point, Fassbender brings down the house with the film’s best line, “What the fuck is going on?”—and as directed by Australian helmer Justin Kurzel (Macbeth, which also starred Fassbender and Cotillard), all about visual razzmatazz and not much else. We don’t get interesting characters, that’s for sure, but we do get a couple of nice breakneck action sequences–one of them a carriage chase and a gorgeous horse galloping across rooftops. Of course, if the damn movie were a lot better, you probably wouldn’t start wondering during the chase, So, how did the horse get up there? Is it going to get down OK? There’s also a cool parkour rooftop chase but by then we’re already an hour in, after having had to listen to way too much gobbledygook uttered with absolutely zero snap or bravado. Cotillard seems so glassy-eyed, numb and colorless that, for the length of the movie, it’s hard to believe we’ve ever loved her in anything.
When the whole thing goes haywire and the biggest battle begins, Fassbender rips off his shirt and fights bare-chested. The preview audience cheered. If only the rest of the movie had as much sense of high-spirited lunacy. Stay home and play the game instead.