Assassin’s Creed: Fatal But Not Serious

Or as it might better be known, Killing in the Name of the MacGuffin. What is a MacGuffin? Glad you asked. Alfred Hitchcock coined the term decades ago, referring to anything that drives a plot but has little to no narrative value itself. It spurs all the action in the film, but it’s usually left undefined, and in some cases disappears altogether once it kick-starts the plot. The Maltese Falcon is such a thing, as is the glowing suitcase in Pulp Fiction, and even the Hellmouth from Buffy The Vampire Slayer qualifies.

In Assassin’s Creed, the MacGuffin is the Apple of Eden, a magical whatsahoozit that the Templar Order has been seeking for centuries in order to eliminate humanity’s free will. In an effort to discover the Apple’s location, the Templars with the help of Dr. Sofia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard) have created the Animus, a machine that accesses genetic memory. Their most promising test subject is Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender), who happens to be the last descendant of Aguilar de Nerha (also Fassbender), a member of the Order of Assassins who hid the Apple over 500 years ago and took the secret of its whereabouts to his grave.

If that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, rest assured that it won’t make any more sense in the context of the movie itself. What little plot there is in Assassin’s Creed exists solely to fuel some admittedly thrilling and visually stunning (if overly complex) action sequences. In-between those scenes, though, it’s unclear what kind of film director Justin Kurzel was trying to make. A serious drama? A sci-fi thriller? An alternate-history action fantasy? Kurzel never seems to settle on any one of those choices, trying to straddle all of them equally, and ends up limiting himself in the process.

While AC is based off of the video game series of the same name, it isn’t an adaptation of any of those games. Instead, it creates its own story with its own characters based off of the established tropes of the series itself. Kurzel seems to revel in the relative freedom afforded to him through this method, and his visual palette is almost beyond reproach, but the result also comes off as unfocused and so deadly serious that it nearly becomes satirical.

Most of that has to do with the leaden, expository script. It’s almost always a bad sign when a film begins with an opening crawl narration describing the setting. We get very little context for the actions of any of the characters, even the protagonist, and the narrative itself is so compressed and busy that it becomes a jumbled mess of plot points and proper nouns. While knowing the mythology of the AC games might help in finding easter eggs, it seems like it wouldn’t help anyone parse out the confused and scattershot narrative.

The film also takes itself far, far too seriously. While there’s something commendable about a video-game adaptation making an attempt to pass itself off as both a loyal adaptation and a film in its own right, it’s an extremely difficult trick to pull off, and AC doesn’t quite make it. It has only a handful of intentionally-comedic or light-hearted moments, and it’s so desperate to come off as Real Cinema that the dramatic portions feel suffocatingly heavy. It’s as much helped as hindered by Jed Kurzel’s fittingly-dramatic and sonorous score, which is fantastic enough on its own, but which never, ever turns itself off.

One of the things that saves the film, however, are its arresting visuals and mind-bending action scenes that push the limits of both physics and the PG-13 rating (it’s an arterial spray away from an R). Kurzel brings to AC the same bold color palette he brought to his adaptation of Macbeth, which interestingly enough also starred Fassbender and Cotillard in the leading roles. His handling of the fight sequences is surprisingly adept, even if his sense of place is shaky; a prolonged chase sequence through 15th-century Andalusia is as thrilling as it is topographically confusing. The vast majority of the effects and stunts were practical, however, and there is still a tactile reality that grounds the sequences even while they threaten to spin out of control.

Beyond that, this is quite possibly the most over-qualified cast a video game adaptation has ever seen, sometimes to a metatextually-distracting degree. Fassbender is an Academy Award nominee, Cotillard is an Academy Award winner, and they’re joined by fellow Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons and veteran actress Charlotte Rampling. For what it’s worth, nobody in the cast seems to think of the film as just a paycheck (even the notoriously mercenary Irons), and all do the best with the material they’re given.

Fassbender and Cotillard are both especially skilled at making something out of nothing, since we don’t have much context for their actions or their character arcs. Through body language, sharp emotional shading, and tone of voice, both actors end up making the characters seem far more three-dimensional than they actually are. As Aguilar, Fassbender has little to say but a lot to punch, kick, and stab. He does nearly all of his own fighting, so he communicates as Nerha through action, and it’s nearly hypnotic to watch. It also helps that the third act prominently features Fassbender’s naked and unbelievably-sculpted torso. He has a strong rapport with Cotillard, but also with Ariane Labed, who plays Nerha’s sister-in-arms during the flashbacks. Labed herself is a striking presence, a beautiful whirling dervish of an action hero, even if the film never gives her a name outside of the end credits.

Like Kurzel’s Macbeth, Assassin’s Creed doesn’t race toward a climax as much as it slouches to an ending, even if it runs out of plot well before it runs out of energy. Even with an unquestionably dedicated cast and a director with a knack for stunning visuals, it feels as unformed and opaque as any other video-game adaptation. Maybe instead of hunting for some mythical artifact from Biblical times, the Assassins and Templars should have been fighting over the secret formula for making a great film out of a great video game.

FBOTU Score: 5 out of 10 / C

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