Last of the Monster Kids

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Tuesday, May 28, 2019

VIDEO GAME MOVIE MONTH: Assassin's Creed (2016)

I remember when the first “Assassin’s Creed” game came out — which was almost twelve years ago now, because I’m old as shit. As I recall, most of the hype revolved around the game’s historical action elements. It was only after the game actually came out that people realized there was a sci-fi twist to the tale. Gamers clearly didn’t mind, as the original spawned an on-going series that includes 11 main entries and even more handheld/mobile spin-offs. Given that blockbuster success, a movie must’ve seemed like a good idea. Ubi-Soft, the games’ creators, were so determined to make an “Assassin’s Creed” film, that they formed their own production company to do so. Michael Fassbender became involved early on, suggesting confidence in the project was riding high. Instead, “Assassin’s Creed” was another video game adaptation to flop with critics and underperform financially.

Since ancient times, the Knights Templar have sought the Biblical Apple of Eden, hoping to use it to destroy free will and end mankind’s violent ways. Through the ages, the Assassins have opposed them. The Templars have tracked down the modern descendants of the Assassins, such as convicted felon Cal Lynch. Using a machine called the Animus, Cal relives the life of his distant ancestor: Aguilar de Nehra, an assassin in 14th century Spain protecting the Apple from the Inquisition. (Secretly a front for the Templars, of course.) The Templars plan to use these “genetic memories” to uncover the Apple’s modern location. Cal must decide whether to help them or not.

“Assassin’s Creed” was directed by Justin Kurzel, who previously worked with Fassbender on a gloomy version of “MacBeth.” Kurzel is best known for the unrelentingly dark true crime story “Snowtown.” Unsurprisingly, Kurzel brings his trademark dour approach to this film. The cast of “Assassin’s Creed” frequently brood in the shadows. The Animus room is weirdly dark. You’d think the scientists would want to clearly see everything. The secret compound Cal is kept is a washed-out, sterile environment. All the historical sequences have a gritty composition to them, emphasizing the heat and dirt of the setting. Everything is taken very seriously indeed. A disconnect eventually emerges, as the plot is a typically silly video game story of chasing after a magical MacGuffin.

Like so many video game adaptations, “Assassin’s Creed” has its share of exposition and pre-established lore. (Especially a subplot about the “bleeding effect,” an excuse for the modern descendants to learn their ancestors’ skills.) However, the movie actually makes this work in its favor. The ideas in “Assassin’s Creed” are interesting, to me anyway. I have a weakness for historical fiction that ties together the eons with a behind-the-scenes secret “true story.” The Templars are apparently behind all the massive leaps forward in civilization. Religion and consumerism were previous attempts to stem humanity’s violent ways. The central theme of the film — if free will is worth it, considering the human race’s self-destructive impulses — gives the protagonist a difficult choice. By actually being about something, by grappling with some real ideas, “Assassin’s Creed” is elevated above most video game movies.

For all its pretensions, “Assassin's Creed” is still an action movie. It delivers pretty well in that regard. Kurzel's action sequence are fast-paced, the deathly blows frequently being emphasized with stylized point-of-view shots or some rough handheld zoom-ins. Befitting the film's video game roots, the focus is on acrobatic and cool looking hand-to-hand combat. In a pretty impressive scene, Fassbender, who supposedly did a lot of his own stunts, swings a spear around and effectively dispatches a number of enemies. There's lots of leaping and flipping through the air. While Kurzel's camera is sometimes a little on the unsteady side – a scene where assassins run across ropes or an enemy busts through a window are a little hard to follow – it's all well handled, for the most part.

Another thing that elevates “Assassin's Creed” is its cast, which is considerably more stacked than you'd expect from a video game adaptation. As a lead, Fassbender is effectively grim, playing a guy with little hope that finds something to live for. His complicated relationship with his father, played by a nicely mythic Brendan Gleeson, adds further depth to his character arc. Marion Cotillard brings a sympathetic note to Sofia, the woman running the Animus program who clearly doesn't think of herself as a villain. Jeremy Irons, as her father and a high-ranking Templar, brings the expected level of dignity to what normally might've been an undefined villain part. Michael K. Williams as the modern day leader of the assassin descendants, pumps up a fairly small role with his expected level of attitude.

Going in with no expectations, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by “Assassin's Creed.” The direction is stylish, the cast is very good, the action is exciting, and the story has enough interesting turns to keep you invested. Critics felt differently, as the film was poorly reviewed. Maybe my positive reaction is just because I'm watching this at the end of a whole month of much worst films. Much like 2016's other big video game movie, “Assassin's Creed” did poorly at the box office domestically – it opened at number five – but did better overseas... But still didn't gross enough to be declared a success. I don't know why “Assassin's Creed” flopped, though being released over a crowded holiday weekend and Ubisoft flooding the market with new video game installments multiple times a year surely didn't help. But, if you like the same sort of bullshit as I do, maybe give the film a chance and see what you think. [7/10]

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