REVIEW: Assassin’s Creed [2016]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 140 minutes | Release Date: December 21st, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Director(s): Justin Kurzel
Writer(s): Michael Lesslie and Adam Cooper & Bill Collage /
Patrick Désilets, Corey May & Jade Raymond (videogame)

“Not everyone deserves to live”

The Knights Templar and their numerous myths about secret societies and grand political aspirations have rendered the organization primed for villainous roles in multiple forms of media. One example is Ubisoft’s videogame Assassin’s Creed wherein a violent war has waged for centuries between the Templars’ drive for world domination (peace via control) and the Assassins’ desire to stop them (peace via free will). The series sprinkles in real historical figures and does its best to make it seem as though it could all be true—besides the “Pieces of Eden” and their supernatural connection to triple-helix DNA. Well it caught fire to the tune of 100 million copies sold of nine main games, seventeen spin-offs, novelizations, and now a big budget Hollywood production with dreams of even more.

Like most projects spawned from products with rabid fan-bases, Assassin’s Creed went through multiple rewrites and control struggles until the final screenplay was credited to Michael Lesslie and writing duo Adam Cooper and Bill Collage. The direction settled upon was one where a brand new tale would be created to set itself apart from (but still connect to) the games. To do so they utilize the character of Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), a high-ranking Templar official and CEO of Abstergo Industries and Foundation. His company, led by daughter Sofia (Marion Cotillard), manufactures the Animus, a viewfinder tapping into its patients’ genetic history to look at the past. Introduced in the first game and subsequently mentioned in passing, Rikkin proves a perfect entry point for fans and newcomers alike.

I’m very firmly set in the latter camp having never played the game (although my cousin did supply me a crash course to understand certain details and not go in completely cold). Even so, it is obvious Rikkin will be our main antagonist, his stern gaze from a car outside young Callum Lynch’s home the day the boy’s mother (Essie Davis) is killed by his Assassin father (Brian Gleeson) all we need to assume his motives. He’s ostensibly leading the militarized force searching for Joseph Lynch—an extermination squad for lack of a better term. He’s a Templar, a member of the sect shown to be more than willing to kill a child prince in order to achieve its mission during a 1492-set prologue. He’s motivated by self-interest.

This prologue is crucial to our understanding of the wild premise as it sets the stage for the ancient fight’s present-day extension. In it we see the Templars kidnap Sultan Muhammad XII’s (Khalid Abdalla) son as leverage to acquire the “Apple of Eden”—a device containing the blueprints of our genome and therefore a way to eradicate free will. On the other side is the initiation of Aguilar de Nerha (Michael Fassbender) into the Assassin’s Order, a process commemorating the fact that his life is now less important than the group’s salvation. He must protect the boy, the “Apple,” and mankind itself from the Templar’s clutches. Aguilar is ultimately the last person to have seen the artifact with a living ancestor in 2016: Callum Lynch.

Fast-forward to murderer Lynch’s (also Fassbender) execution and his implausible adventure begins. Dead to the world, Callum is now conscripted to Abstergo. Told he’s not a prisoner (he is), Sofia seeks to earn his trust and educate him on the Animus’ powers. By attaching to its giant robotic arm, memories of Aguilar that are bonded to his DNA will play out in a ghost-like haze. Callum won’t be able to control his actions (the past is concrete), but Sofia will be able to follow him and pinpoint his location five centuries ago. Her scientific hope is to find the “Apple” and therefore a way to erase violent aggression from humanity. It’s a nice thought, but little else once we see her father watching from his ivory tower.

Will Callum decide to help them the Templars? He ultimately must connect to the Animus under his own free will so as not to prematurely disconnect when the action grows too volatile—an intriguing reality considering it means Rikkin needs his free will in order to destroy it. Lynch doesn’t know the Templars’ history and the other Assassins held at Abstergo (Michael K. Williams‘ Moussa, Callum Turner‘s Nathan, and Michelle H. Lin‘s Lin) are less than forthcoming considering they’re uncertain whether Lynch will awaken to acknowledge his destined place among them. Will Sofia’s altruism prove stronger than her father’s greed? Will Templar security head McGowen (Denis Ménochet) kill everyone for fun? Will Templar elder Ellen Kaye (Charlotte Rampling) descend, wresting away control to have her own way?

I won’t lie: nothing that occurs is surprising. In fact, the places where surprise had the potential to open things up (mainly where Sofia was concerned) refused to move past the status quo. Luckily I didn’t expect Assassin’s Creed would deliver more than brutal action and surface sci-fi as it relates to the game’s macho fantasy underpinnings. We understand what happened in 1986 between Lynch’s parents as soon as we see them. We know the reasons the Templars want the “Apple” even if Sofia deludes herself into thinking something else. And we know where Callum will ultimately land once he takes control of his situation and embraces the Animus’ gifts. The fun in watching is therefore to see it unfold with exhilarating fights and exciting visuals.

Despite being over two hours, things do feel rushed at times considering the filmmakers are juggling world-building exposition alongside extensive character development. Director Justin Kurzel does well to use motifs like a soaring eagle transporting us to and from the past as well as filling the backgrounds with details like weaponry and focused dialogue-based hints of deception and complexity. Everything looks great, the Spanish Inquisition and high-tech science lab set-designs make quality use of budget. Casting too with Fassbender, Cotillard, Irons, Rampling, Williams, and Brendan Gleeson (you can guess who he plays) all bigger names than the material demands. They lend respectability and increase audience intrigue should the series continue with sequels. Early box office estimates are predicting it won’t happen, but I’d watch if it does.

I would because it’s entertaining. The premise is laughable on its own without characters uttering game mechanics with whispered awe (“Leap of faith!”), but it works in tandem with the action. We buy the world because we start to let curiosity get the better of us as far as the Assassins go. To me the present-day members of the order held prisoner by Abstergo are the main sell—those awakened soldiers fully cognizant of their ancestors’ past as a result of Rikkin’s experiments. I enjoy stories where the oppressor gives the oppressed the tools to overthrow them and to me Assassin’s Creed is nothing if not that. While its plot feigns intelligence to facilitate its main draw of visceral violence, the characters possess enough depth to hold attention.

[1] Through a revolutionary technology that unlocks his genetic memories, Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender) experiences the adventures of his ancestor, Aguilar, in 15th Century Spain with Maria (Ariane Labed). Photo Credit: Kerry Brown. – Copyright © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. ASSASSIN’S CREED Motion Picture Copyright © 2016 Regency Entertainment (USA), Inc. and Monarchy Enterprises S.a.r.l. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
[2] Jeremy Irons as Alan Rikkin in ASSASSIN’S CREED. Photo Credit: Kerry Brown – TM & © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
[3] Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender) reacts to a revolutionary technology, administered by the mysterious Sofia (Marion Cotillard). Photo Credit: Kerry Brown. – Copyright © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. ASSASSIN’S CREED Motion Picture Copyright © 2016 Regency Entertainment (USA), Inc. and Monarchy Enterprises S.a.r.l. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.

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