Australian director Justin Kurzel graduates from directing Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in Wlliam Shakespeare’s Macbeth (2015) to directing Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in game series spinoff Assassin’s Creed. Well, fair enough, you go where you can. What we have here is a rather serious-minded movie based on a video game. That’s odd then.
There aren’t many laughs in Assassin’s Creed. The fun, as with the video game, I guess, comes from all the violence and killings, and there are plenty of both, especially in a movie that is classed by the BBFC as 12 certificate ‘moderate violence’. Largely going the route of avoiding showing the blood, suffering and injury involved in the depicted violence doesn’t change a thing.
There’s also a BBFC warning about ‘infrequent strong language’, which seems to consist solely of the hero asking ‘what the f*** is going on?’ Odd to have one F word in a movie, but then it’s more effective that way (James Franco, I’m talking to you), and everyone will happily agree with Fassbender when he asks his expletive-deleted question of Cotillard. In just a minute, I’ll try to explain to you what the f*** is going on in Assassin’s Creed.
In fairness, I suppose the screenplay by Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage is not bad considering it is based on a video game series created by Patrick Désilets, Corey May and Jade Raymond, who oddly are uncredited. The new original story expands the series’ mythology, which is good for the movie. They manage to pull in everything we know about old Spain, the Spanish Inquisition, Christopher Columbus and the Alhambra palace in Granada. But the film, though, has an unwieldy three time frame construction, 1492, 1986 and 2016, and introducing action in the three eras gives the movie problems in settling down.
So we have cards at the start before the title telling us the Assassin’s Creed mumbo jumbo, then later characters telling each other the same stuff, and repeating it, so we all know we are on the right same page. That must have helped the guy who arrived late after the explanation cards and sat in front of me. Hey man, just try to get there on time next time, huh?
Repeated it may be, but the Assassin’s Creed lore is kind of simple: there are those pesky Knights Templars (again!), and they’re seeking some MacGuffin-style jewelled Apple (containing the good and evil thing), so if they have it they can control everybody, including world violence. And there are the Assassins, who believe in violence and freedom to kill people, and are out to kill them. I think that’s about it.
Fassbender is the producer, at least one of them, and he casts himself as Callum Lynch, a convicted killer, who is given a lethal injection on Death Row. Callum is an honest kind of killer who likes violence, both now and then, and despises people who don’t. He briefly mentions cheerily that he killed a pimp in 1986. But somehow, post mortem, Callum wakes up alive in a guarded building belonging to the Abstergo company, which has created a revolutionary technology that unlocks genetic memories.
Abstergo is run by scientist Soffia (Cotillard) and her obviously nutty dad Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons). Soffia sounds like a Frenchwoman trying to sound English by clipping all her words, which makes her hard to comprehend. Of course that’s probably a good thing, given the video game dialogue. Weirdly, she is the daughter of a man who has a very plummy English voice, and obviously was an Oscar-winning actor in a past life. You can hear every word he says.
Soffia wants to manipulate Callum in a caring sort of way, Dad just wants to manipulate him. He’s after the Apple! Soffia does stuff to Cal, shoving something in the back of his neck, and soon he has memories of his ancestor Aguilar de Nerha and gains the skills of a Master Assassin, which he can act out at Abstergo.
He discovers he is descended from a mysterious secret society, the Assassins, and amasses the skills to take on the oppressive and powerful Templar organization in the present day by going back to the past as Aguilar, and battling the Templars in 1492, as well as in 2016. I know, I know, ‘what the f*** is going on?’ it doesn’t make any sense.
Meanwhile, Callum tries to come to terms with his boyhood memories of his own Dad killing his Mum in 1986. Director Kurzel casts his wife Essie Davis as the mother, Mary Lynch, which is not much of a role, more of an appearance than a part. He also casts some more famous names, importing proper actors to try to make the mumbo jumbo fly: Brendan Gleeson as Cal’s Dad and Charlotte Rampling as Rikkin’s Templar boss. They give the impression they had two days’ work on the movie, one for each scene. They try hard to give it gravitas, but are defeated by their lines. Memo for 2017, posh actors can’t perform miracles.
Rampling calls the 41-year-old Cotillard ‘my child’, an unfortunate line that raises a giggle and also reminds us that the hero and heroine are middle-aged folk, incredibly fit and handsome and talented though they are. The presence of the 26-year-old Callum Turner as Nathan also points in the direction of emphasising that we have middle-aged heroes. The kid has nothing to do by the way. Nothing wrong with middle-aged heroes, you say, the comic book movie franchises are full of them.
So there we have it, in the present, lots of talk, most of it pointless and pretentious, while in the far-off past, lots of killing and violence, most of it reprehensible, and OMG, so much CGI that the whole movie could be an animation. It might have been better off that way. Fassbender better be careful, CGI might replace him entirely, and his posh acting colleagues along with him.
In fairness again, the movie is very slick and well edited, rushed briskly along by Justin Kurzel and scored excitingly by his brother Jed Kurzel and photographed smartly by Adam Arkapaw, with brilliant production designs by Andy Nicholson. There’s a whole lot of hard, highly professional work behind this movie. And money too, $125 million of it apparently, all of it up there on screen.
It was shot in Malta, London, Spain, the 007 Stage at Pinewood Studios and in Ely Cathedral.
The film includes the games’ signature Leap of Faith jump, ironically performed for real by Fassbender’s stunt double, Damien Walters, in an effort to avoid visual effects when the film is overburdened by them. The 125 ft freefall was one of the highest performed by a stuntman in 35 years but it just looks like a visual effect.
© Derek Winnert 2017 Movie Review
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