Video game adaptations are tricky prospects, which is why so few of them are any good. Taking the volitional aspect out of an interactive experience essentially strips the enterprise of its stated purpose, and the vast majority of films based on games are starting off at a significant disadvantage in comparison to the original (or even literary adaptations). It’s difficult for any filmmaker to craft a compelling story from a narrative world that was intended to be more or less open-ended, and it’s even more complicated to develop engaging characters on the basis of avatars that were designed to be little more than objects of psychological projection for individual gamers. One need go no further back than this summer’s dismal Warcraft for a case in point of the myriad deficiencies inherent to the form, but the history of the subgenre is replete with abject failures. So … it’s with a considerable degree of disbelief that I’m able to say Assassin’s Creed isn’t completely awful. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s a pretty watchable film when taken on its own terms.
2016 was a particularly difficult year for Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, the former having disappointed egregiously with The Light Between Oceans and the latter having fallen similarly short of my expectations in last month’s Allied. I certainly didn’t expect Assassin’s Creed to do them any favors — and it doesn’t. However, they both seem to take the enterprise more seriously than the source material should warrant and manage to deliver admirable performances even though they may not have much to work with in terms of character.
They are ably supported by such talented performers as Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Kenneth Williams and Charlotte Rampling. (For those taken in by the recent hoax regarding Irons’ alleged death, rest assured the actor is very much alive and has avoided the dubious fate of Raúl Juliá, whose last role was the unfortunate 1994 video game adaptation Street Fighter.) What drew such a competent cast to a film of this ilk we may never know, but they manage to make the film significantly more interesting than it has any right to be.
Director Justin Kurzel, having previously directed Cotillard and Fassbender in last year’s Macbeth, was never in any danger of dragging Shakespeare into the world of video game blockbusters. He has, however, mastered the questionable craft of the 3D spectacle. Yes, it comes across a bit like watching someone else play a video game, the dialogue strains credulity, character arcs are practically nonexistent and the entire premise is poorly conceived. But the byzantine mythology of the game franchise contributes an air of depth typically absent from such films, even if that depth seems largely illusory when probed too deeply. While the ending comes across as something of an anti-climax and the structure bears some distinct and largely avoidable problems, the set pieces are visually interesting enough to maintain audience engagement. It’s a mess, but it’s certainly not boring.
So what if the basis of the conflict is some poorly defined quest — on the part of a shadowy pseudo-Masonic organization with a laughably ahistorical connection to the Knights Templar — to strip humanity of its capacity for free will? Who cares if the MacGuffin is some sort of antediluvian genetic material ostensibly guarded since the distant past by people who should rationally have had no concept of genetics in the first place? Audiences harboring some interest in this film probably aren’t looking for a great epic of historical fiction — or even a coherent narrative. They’re looking for a fast-paced action extravaganza with a touch more significance than the average video game movie. On that level, Assassin’s Creed kills it. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, thematic elements and brief strong language.
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