Like his shiny set of Assassin blades, Michael Fassbender dual-wields the main roles in Assassin’s Creed – those of present day thug Callum Lynch and Spanish Inquisition ancestor Aguilar. It means Fassbender is always the film’s focus, the sharp end of its blade designed to ensure Ubisoft’s biggest gaming series penetrates ever further into the public consciousness. But what a mess he’s forced to make to try and get its point across.
Fans of the series should expect a whirlwind tour of the Assassin’s Creed greatest hits – splendidly reconstructed historical settings, wall-running and roof-jumping fisticuffs, philosophical meanderings over a shiny Apple of Eden McGuffin – but all of the games’ poorer traits make the leap to the big screen, too: weak characterisation, humourless exposition, and a story which exists simply to string one punch-up to the next.
The film’s highlights are easily found in its lavish historical scenes, its soaring city-spanning camera pans overlooking the dusty streets and polished palaces of Spanish Inquisition-era Andalucia. Fassbender’s introduction as Aguilar bubbles with promise, and the elaborate chase and fight sequences which follow are pure video game on a Hollywood budget. And yet the majority of the film is spent away from these excursions into the past, trapped with Aguilar’s descendant in a corporate basement.
Assassin’s Creed’s modern day story stars Lynch – Cal to his friends – a man with a tragic family backstory who is spirited away by the mysterious Abstergo corporation so it can probe his DNA. Fans of the series will more than recognise the setup. Confusing the matter is Lynch’s more recent past – he’s a murderer, sentenced to death by lethal injection before Abstergo intervened. We’re never told the proper context for his crime or given any further detail to his character – save for a glimpse of himself as an innocent, rosy-cheeked child, having the not-so-cheery life of your standard Assassin’s Creed protagonist.
The decision to cast the film’s main character as a criminal, as opposed to the game series’ modern day stalwart Desmond who was largely left a blank slate, ends up a bold choice without any pay off. Lynch’s unlikability adds a degree of mystery to the film’s opening hour as the audience is asked to care whether Fassbender’s grunting poster child for anger management classes will eventually turn out good. There’s also a similar, more familiar question mark over the film’s two factions – the Assassins, who hold a dark role in Lynch’s childhood, and Abstergo, who hold him physically now – even though anyone with any knowledge of the game series will know the latter’s true intent (not to mention it has Jeremy Irons as its British-accented boss).
But Lynch’s character is never believably developed, and throughout he remains no better sketched than most video game protagonists, Assassin’s Creed or otherwise – even as Abstergo’s ultimate ambitions are revealed and his fellow detainees make their move. His cellmates – others whose ancestry is of interest to Abstergo – are sadly wasted. Michael K. Williams brings a much-needed warmth to the film in the handful of scenes he appears, and also acts as one of the few references to Ubisoft’s game series hidden for fans (his mention of an ancestor trained in voodoo is a nod to Assassin’s Creed: Liberation’s Baptiste). There’s surprisingly little fan-service elsewhere, save for a few quick shots of some familiar weapons, which suggest fellow prisoner Lin is linked to Assassin’s Creed: Embers’ Shao Jun.
Despite the money spent on acting talent (Marianne de Cotillard as Jeremy Irons’ tight-lipped protege, a mournful Brendan Gleeson and a suitably starched Charlotte Rampling) neither of the latter two are given the screen time to make an impact, while Cotillard suffers through some of the film’s worst exposition-filled scenes. The film’s plot smartly skips around some of the game series’ more out-there concepts (its Precursor race gets only the most fleeting of mentions), although its attempts at philosophical debate are shrugged off as soon as the next punch is thrown.
Then again, some ideas from the series such as the Animus’ creepy Bleeding Effect are actually demonstrated with greater success than in the games. The film’s biggest innovation is its ability to show Fassbender’s simultaneous movements as both Aguilar and Lynch while hooked up to the Animus – now a huge crane-mounted VR machine with a Matrix-style neck plug. The physical strains of the process are clear – and it also gives the audience plenty of time to watch a topless Fassbender thrown around the room.
Assassin’s Creed is known for its pulpy sci-fi window into the past, but the film’s retread of familiar plot points with no room for more character development or any greater depth ends up feeling like a missed opportunity – even if its visuals and action sequences are easy on the eye. I went in wanting to like it, unlike the snickering film journalists sat beside me, but left with little to recommend. It reminds me somewhat of the first Assassin’s Creed game – repetitive, stuffy, yet with a glimmer of promise. If the film does get a sequel, Ubisoft should know how it can improve.