Monday, January 9, 2017

Review: Assassin's Creed (2016)

Assassin's Creed (2016)

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, thematic elements and brief strong language

Score: 2 out of 5

The film adaptation of the Assassin's Creed games is little more than a curiosity for longtime fans, and ought to be ignored entirely by non-fans. As someone who's played, and had plenty of fun with, most of the games in this series, this film grabbed my attention by standing out from the pack of video game movies in one key way: Ubisoft, the games' publisher, was not only involved in its production, but its story would be fully canonical with that of the game franchise. This would be 2016's Assassin's Creed story, with the games taking a break this year for the first time since the original came out in 2007.

Unfortunately, this wound up being the main problem. Bringing the sprawling lore of Assassin's Creed to the big screen is a difficult endeavor without either making it ridiculous or sucking all the fun out of it. These games are about <deep breath> medieval ninjas in feuding secret societies doing acrobatic, parkour-inspired leaps of faith from tall buildings while interacting with (and sometimes assassinating) historical figures, all while their descendants in the 21st century use advanced technology called the Animus to explore their memories as part of a quest to find the ultra-high-tech, almost magical relics of an advanced, ancient, long-forgotten civilization, one that created the human race and whose legacy inspired many of humanity's creation myths and religions. <Exhale!>

And that's the short version.

This should've been a film in the vein of National Treasure or The Da Vinci Code, an over-the-top conspiracy thriller that recognizes how silly its subject matter is and winks to the viewer on multiple occasions -- a style that the games themselves have often dipped into. Instead, rather than recreating the thrill of its historical badassery, it focuses its attention on the worst element of the games: the parts that take place in the modern day. As a conspiracy mytharc, it's less The X-Files at its height and more The X-Files in season nine after it had gone off the rails, a story that I prefer to think ended with Assassin's Creed III (which was actually the fifth game in the series) when they resolved the whole 2012 doomsday plot. (Yeah, remember all the hype four years ago over the "Mayan doomsday calendar"? This series used it as a major plot point. Told you it was weird.) In the games, the modern-day sections mainly serve as a lore delivery mechanism, with the most interesting characters by far being those in the past whose memories are being explored. The most recent games have heavily downplayed it, depicting it strictly through cutscenes and lore found around the game world, which is honestly where it belongs unless they decide to go all-in and make an Assassin's Creed game set in the present (and knowing how Ubisoft milks this series, such a game is definitely coming). This film, however, tries to strike an even balance between the historical segments and the present day, and both wind up feeling hollow, neither of them left with room to breathe. Combine that with poor direction that does a disservice to the otherwise great stunt and fight choreography, and not even a solid cast can redeem this stinker.

We start with Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender), a man whose family, members of the Assassins (the heroic secret society), has been on the run from the Templars (the bad guys, who are basically the Illuminati) for as long as he's known. With his father captured by the Templars after killing his mother, who turned out to be a Templar spy, he fell into a life of crime in childhood that now seems to be on its way to an end in the lethal injection chair in a Texas prison... only for him to wake up in a mysterious facility in Barcelona owned by Abstergo, the Templar's corporate front in the present day. Abstergo CEO Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) and his daughter Sophia (Marion Cotillard), the head of the Animus project, have figured out that Callum is the last known descendant of a 15th-century Spanish Assassin named Aguilar de Nerha, who was privy to the location of a powerful artifact called the Apple of Eden. Plugged into the Animus, Callum lives out his ancestor's memories fighting the Templars during the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, while out of it, he interacts with other captives of Abstergo while his memories and those of Aguilar slowly begin to bleed together, as he has visions of Aguilar and starts to gain his fighting moves -- just in time for his fellow captives, many of them Assassins, to plot a revolt.

Therein lies the problem I was getting at earlier. We could have either focused on the captive Assassins' revolt against Abstergo and their attempt to destroy the Animus, or we could've focused on Aguilar's search for the Apple. The plotting in the games works because the modern-day stories are clearly secondary to the historical ones, which contain fleshed-out characters and a driving plot. Here, we have neither. Forget comparing this to other movies; the basics of storytelling here are lacking even in comparison to the games they're based on. Neither Callum nor Aguilar gets much personality to speak of despite the efforts of Michael Fassbender (who plays them both), especially not when you compare them to past game protagonists like Ezio (who evolves from a cocky rich kid in his first appearance to a wizened Assassin elder in his last), Connor (the son of an English Templar and a Mohawk woman who finds his loyalties torn in the American Revolution), or Captain Kenway (a pirate who's just in it for the booty). They're just never given any room to breathe in a 108-minute film that has both of their plotlines competing for attention. It's the original Ouija all over again, except in a big-budget action blockbuster instead. I'm given little reason to care about Callum and Aguilar, let alone any of the people around him, because they are all so thinly sketched. The Templars we see are a vague, generic council of evil, while the Assassins get little characterization beyond the fact that we're told they're the good guys. The lone exception is poor Marion Cotillard's Sophia, a character whose motivations change from scene to scene with no explanation. At one point, she's growing disillusioned with her father and the Templars and tries to help Callum, yet by the end (spoiler warning), she hates Callum for killing her father, with little indication of just why she changed her mind so quickly. Everybody in the cast is trying, but even stars like Fassbender, Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, and Charlotte Rampling can't spin crap into gold. I gave up on trying to follow the plot about halfway in, and never looked back.

This might have been somewhat forgivable had the meat of the film, the reason somebody might want to see a live-action Assassin's Creed adaptation on the big screen, been up to snuff. And to this film's credit, you can tell that a lot went into the stunt work, the fight scenes, and the acrobatics on display here. It largely eschews CGI in favor of filming many of the games' highlight moments for real, from the protagonists climbing over medieval architecture to taking impossible leaps of faith off of bridges into the water below to escape their pursuers. When the film gives the action room to shine, it finally begins to approach being good. Unfortunately, most of it looks like it was shot by a coked-up music video director doing his first feature film, or an indie drama filmmaker who's been thrown into the captain's chair of a big action flick without any indication that he's cut out for the job. The editing is awful, doing everything it can to distract from the action through quick cuts, close-in shots, and my personal action cinema nemesis, shaky-cam. Together, they make the spectacle nearly incomprehensible on screen, a mess of blades swinging and people jumping around that seems intended more to excite viewers than actually tell a coherent story. The rare occasions when I could tell what was happening made me appreciate the behind-the-scenes work that much more, as they were doing their job in spite of thankless editing and cinematography. Paul Greengrass, what hath thou wrought?

The Bottom Line:

The only reason I'm not giving this a 1 is because of those few moments when you can see a better movie trying to claw its way out. It's a film that captures all the terrible things about the games it's based on, and little of what makes them work. File it next to Super Mario Bros. and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation in the annals of subpar game-to-movie adaptations.

No comments:

Post a Comment