Thursday, 29 December 2016

Movie Review: Assassin's Creed (2016)



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Against every semblance of better judgement that I possess, and an understanding of the low standards of the genre, this is easily the film that I was looking forward to the most all year. And no, that’s not just because I’m a fan of the video games; I’ve had my fun with the Assassin’s Creed series, and I actually have to give credit to AC 2 for giving me the pen name that I still use to this day, but that’s not why I’m seriously looking forward to this one. Instead, it’s because this film is being directed by Aussie filmmaker Justin Kurzel, who showed some serious skill last year with his excellent adaptation of Macbeth. Add to that how lead actors Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are also returning as our leads here, and one of the most badass trailers we’ve gotten all year, and I am definitely anxious to check this one out… even though I am fully aware that it isn’t going to be a great work of art. That may seem at odds with my own personal hype but, as I dig into this thing, I’ll hopefully be able to clarify that. This is Assassin’s Creed.


The plot: Callum (Michael Fassbender), on death row after spending most of his life on the run, finds himself in an Abstergo facility at the whims of CEO Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) and his scientist daughter Sophie (Marion Cotillard). Abstergo has traced Callum’s bloodline to the infamous Assassins, a society of freedom fighters who have been at war with Abstergo’s higher-ups the Knights Templar for many generations. Through the scientific marvel the Animus, Callum is able to tap into his ancestor’s memories, specifically the Assassin Aguilar who fought during the Spanish Inquisition, and Sophie tasks him with finding the last location of the Apple Of Eden, an artefact capable of bending free will to the whim of its user.

This is a very well-casted film and the actors do a remarkable job with the material. Fassbender is officially at the point of being unable to waste a performance, and while he may be emotionally all over the place in a few scenes, he does a capital job both as Callum and Aguilar. Cotillard has some real emotional refinement in her performance, creating some nice complexities to her relationships with both Callum and her father. Jeremy Irons is a tad one-note as a villain, but he manages to play that one note well enough; it’s not Dungeons & Dragons, so he’s thankfully restrained enough to fit the tone of the film. Brendan Gleeson as Callum’s father (with his son Brian Gleeson playing his younger self in a rather nice touch) only really gets one scene to himself but he definitely manages to sell the drama within, an interesting feat considering how warped that scene would turn out. Michael K. Williams as one of Callum’s fellow prisoners at the facility is alright if rather underutilized, and Ariane Labed as Assassin Maria is made of awesome; this film really could have benefitted from having more of her.

Might as well get the obvious question out of the way first: How does this film hold up as a continuation of the game series? Honestly, it’s a lot better than I was expecting considering the parameters of the series itself. The mythos of the story are extremely convoluted already, and the film honestly does an admirable job at trying to condense it into something fit for a singular film. The musings on the nature of free will, while not having the added dimension of including the player’s actions into the equation, is decent enough, if not exactly the most scientifically feasible but I’m willing to chalk that up to the bad guys being intentionally narrow-minded in that regard. Just something as simple as the redesign of the Animus shows that Kurzel and co. had a definite approach to the story and making it work on-screen, even if the whole genetic memory thing isn’t that well explained in-film. The story itself seems a bit backwards for the series though, considering the overarching modern story is the least important aspect of the games in terms of plot; it was always the individuals that the player character relived the memories of that were more interesting. Here, far more emphasis has been placed on the actions of Callum rather than those of Aguilar… and honestly, it kind of works here. If anything, this might be the single best display of the modern conflict between the Templars and the Assassins we’ve so far gotten with this series.

But how about as a film in its own right? Well, since the story is the least important aspect and the actual gameplay being the main selling point, how does this non-interactive film work? Well, it thankfully manages to maintain Kurzel’s Snyder-esque approach to fight scenes, making for some pretty cool sequences. While shot with a camera lens that seems to have a thin layer of desert sand stuck to it, Kurzel had enough sense to take the parkour and free-form fighting style of the games and translate it into some nicely kinetic fight scenes. The energy shown in these scenes is definitely to be commended, not to mention actually manage to get some nice fist-pumping moments as we see Aguilar and Maria slash their way through the Templar hordes. If nothing else, I took away how cool it looked seeing Aguilar elbow a goon in the face as he drew back his bow; have to admit, that was nice to see.

Beyond the action, the film shows itself capable of working with the paper-thin threads that ties most of these stories together, that being the nature of free will combined with conspiratorial scheming on the part of the Templars and your standard rage against the system mindset of the Assassins. For the first two-thirds of the film, while dramatically inert in a few instances, it manages to work well enough with the material and stand up reasonably well as its own work. And then the third act hits… wow, this film goes completely haywire. I almost want to liken this to the original game’s sudden turn once the existence and use of the Apple is made prominent, but that hardly excuses the film turning this sour this badly. All of a sudden, the audience is bombarded with sudden and jarring alignment switches, character actions that are seriously at odds with what they managed to establish previously and only seem to make sense if they are aware of the film’s events as a whole, and fight scenes that exist solely because the finale required the modern Assassins to get involved by any means necessary. Most of this ends up being conveyed without any form of dialogue, which I can only assume was Kurzel trying to wrap up the story as best as possible. I’ve given credit to Kurzel as a visual storyteller before, but this is really gets incoherent.

All in all, have to admit, I’m quite satisfied with this film overall. It definitely has its issues in terms of plot and areas of character motivation, but considering the source material and how insanely fiddly it is even within the games, this just solidifies Justin Kurzel’s place as a master of movie adaptations. He took a real-life tragic murder and turned it into an appropriately dark and intense experience, one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays and managed to breathe new life into it, and now he’s taken one of the most unwieldly modern gaming franchises out there and turned it into a (mostly) serviceable action film with elements of sci-fi and historical fiction. If anyone other than Kurzel was behind this, this film could have turned out far worse and considering the crap I’ve covered recently, I’m willing to take comfort in that much. It’s better than Pete’s Dragon, as this doesn’t feel nearly as tired or relatively derivative as that ultimately did. However, since this film makes a valiant effort to work past its themes, it falls short of Drown which managed to do its own themes justice.

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