Assassin’s Creed (2016)

I am an enormous fan of Australian director Justin Kurzel’s previous film, the 2015 adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”. “Assassin’s Creed” reunites many of the people who worked on that film – not only Kurzel and the two lead actors Michael Fassabender and Marion Cotillard, but also composer Jed Kurzel and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw. The best parts of “Macbeth” were the direction, the cinematography, the performances, and the music. So I had very high hopes for “Assassin’s Creed”.

My mistake was in not thinking about the script. “Macbeth” was written by one of the greatest writers in history. “Assassin’s Creed” was written by three men whose previous efforts include “The Divergent Series: Allegiant” and “The Transporter – Refueled”.

The movie is in the same universe and canon as the video games, but not based on any of them. Instead, it carves an original story out of the general premise – a person is abducted by a mysterious organisation (the bad guys, a modern incarnation of the Knights Templar) who proceeds to make them live through the genetic memories of their ancestors, who belonged to the mysterious brotherhood of Assassins (the good guys). Both the games and the film alternate between modern-day sequences, and genetic-memory sequences of the past. It’s high concept, certainly, but creative and original. Film audiences have grasped high concepts before and loved them. I don’t think the concept was the issue. I don’t think the premise was the issue. But the actual script, the actual story of the film…that was an issue.

I’m rarely one to complain about plot inconsistencies, but I do care about story. Story in film doesn’t require clever dialogue (or even dialogue at all), or linearity, or conventional character arcs. But some degree of coherency is appreciated. I feel like the writers of this film did not intend it to be as impenetrable and confusing as it is. The sequences in the past feel like the purest expression of the many talents working on the film, because they’re the least saddled by the film’s mess of an overarching story.

There are story beats that work. The sequences in the past, during the Spanish Inquisition, generally work very well. Michael Fassabender gives both his roles his all. Kurzel and Arkapaw bring a lot of their visual skills to the film, resulting in many extremely impressive sequences. But for such a plot-focused film to have such a shoddy mess of a script…it sours things, badly. What felt like the natural ending point of the film, the emotional conclusion to both protagonist’s stories, is glossed over bizarrely quickly, and the film proceeds to keep going for forty minutes or so, continuing a dull plot thread about the film’s McGuffin. Fassabender’s two characters are the only roles really with much character at all – Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael Kenneth Williams…they’re all wasted in shallow roles. At least Cotillard and Gleeson let their skill shine through a tad, where they can.

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I wouldn’t be totally surprised if the film ends up getting a cult following, because its flaws are so bizarre that they distance the viewer in such a way as to not just felt regularly bad, but intriguingly bad, and because its strengths really are worthwhile. The stuntwork is fantastic. There’s many moments where, as in “Macbeth”, the cinematography and music swell together in thrilling, gorgeous moments communicating story beats without any dialogue. But the film never comes together as anything cohesive. For all Ubisoft’s efforts over the years to secure a skilled team to create the film, it’s so bizarre they neglected to get a good script, but that seems to be what happened.

It’s a mess, but often a beautiful one. It’s far from the follow-up to “Macbeth” that I’d hoped for, but taken on its own terms, there’s still a lot I really liked here.  I give it three and a half apples, and a steak.

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