Assassin's Creed isn't the movie that's going to break the string of terrible cinematic experiences based on video games. Way too much of the movie feels like a big-budget advertisement and its attempts to play its dramatic tension straight-faced made me snicker loudly at the screening I went to. It could've been a slyly, self-aware modern day B-movie but it devotes its energy to the wrong stuff.
The film is centered on Callum Lynch, played by Michael Fassbender, a killer criminal who we meet just as he's about to be executed by the state. The chemicals pumped into his body don't kill him and he wakes up in a super-science research facility run by Abstergo, a shady company secretly run by the Knights Templar.
The Templars need Callum Lynch because he's the last descendant of Aguilar, a 15th-century member of the Assassins cult. As part of their war with the Templars, Aguilar and his hood-wearing friends fight to acquire a powerful artifact called the Apple of Eden, which possesses the power to eliminate free will. Head bad guy Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) wants to use it to eradicate violence amongst humanity. He has his scientist daughter Sofia (Marion Cotillard) hook Callum up to the Animus, an invention that uses subjects' DNA to experience their ancestors' lives. In the games, the Animus can be either a bed or a lounge chair hooked up to fancy computers. Here, it's a high-tech combo of black-coloured dry ice mist, 360 degree projectors, and a robotic arm that flings Callum around in sync with the movements of his ancestor.
Those moments make up the high points of Assassin's Creed. The wall-run/roof jump/neck-stab sequences thread Fassbender and company through chaotically tangled streets and labyrinthine interiors but it's hard to appreciate the fight choreography through the manic quick-cut editing. Despite a parade of fun antique weapons, the fight scenes set in the present don't have the same fun escapism as the ones in 15th-century Spain.
The things that are most enjoyable about the film are the same things that have made the video game franchise a success. The Assassin's Creed series became the most important asset for French game publisher Ubisoft by offering up a mix of tense stealth, stylish combat, and acrobatic parkour movement through impressive period-piece recreations of famous places. Assassin's Creed games offer a guttural sort of tourism, as with the crescendo of Assassin's Creed II which had players infiltrate the Sistine Chapel and kill an evil Pope with the help of Leonardo Da Vinci. The painstaking virtualization of antiquarian locales and important people generates enough highfaluting ballast to make you forget that you're cold-bloodedly killing your way through the past. You can almost fool yourself into thinking that you're learning something.
Unfortunately, the Assassin's Creed movie flubs the proportions of its component parts in the exact same way that the games do. Too little of the movie happens in the past. After the focus swings back to the present, I kept hoping we'd take another trip back in time. There's also too much of the worst kind of world-building on display here: vague conspiracy plots with sinister yet ill-defined reach, and info-dump exposition of characters and factional rivalry. Entirely too much of the movie happens in the present in deadening dialogue exchanges that make you wish one person would kill the other already.
A mix of gross and mildly intriguing ideas bubble up from all the churn: The movie posits that Callum is living proof of the link between heredity and crime. Always nice to have some outdated essentialism to undergird the bad guys' logic, right?
Any attempts at establishing empathy or emotional resonance for the characters steers the movie into cringe-inducing point-and-laugh territory. In a plot beat designed to show fanatic devotion to their cause, the movie has Assassins kill each other and themselves to stop Templars from achieving their goals. But I never felt invested in any of the characters to care about these would-be gasp-inducing deaths.
At its worst, Assassin's Creed feels like a fan-wank advertisement for the video games. The titular creed gets uttered mere minutes into the movie, followed by the first of many egregious appearances and the eagles who are the Assassin cult's totems. I cackled -- much the same way my friends at Kotaku did -- every time one of those ponderous, self-serious slo-mo shots popped up, because it's the filmmakers aping the corniest aspects of the games.
The same goes for the long, slow, elaborately staged final confrontations where heroes and villains face off. At one point, after Callum achieves full synchronisation with his genetic legacy, we see him surrounded by a circle of his Assassin forebears in yet another moment inspired by the melodramatic cutscenes of the nine-year-old series. The moments where the Assassin's Creed movie embraces its own inherent ludicrousness shine the brightest but it doesn't do that anywhere near enough.