I am not familiar with the video game on which ASSASSIN’S CREED is based, so I cannot speak to whether or not this cinematic translation has captured its essence. I can speak, however, to the befuddling bifurcation of said translation. Part straight-up action film, part would-be contemplation of the pros and cons of free will, it is a middling sort of film almost redeemed by fine performances by Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Oh, and a truly kick-ass rendering of 15th-century Parkour. Full disclosure, I am a sucker for well-paced Parkour.
The crux of the story involves a centuries-old struggle between the mysterious Templar Knights, an organization that actually did exist, and the Assassin’s Creed, an organization that is a product of careful understanding of what attracts and keeps gamers. In this version of Templar lore, they are the villains desperately seeking the Apple of Eden, a relic that will allow them to bend humanity to its will. Not for power. Not for glory. Rather for the most insidious reason of all, for our own good. Keeping them from this relic are the Assassins, a dour order fanatically devoted to thwarting the Templars by any means necessary. Their code, a curious amalgam of Gnosticism, Crowley, and Kung-Fu, allows for mayhem of all sorts, starting with the initiation ritual.
That’s where we meet Aguilar (Fassbender). It’s 1492 and this brooding warrior is about to be initiated into the Assassins by reciting their florid oath, and sacrificing one of his ring fingers. This is less about a Yakuza-style show of devotion than it is an Amazonian concession to make it easier to wield his bladed gauntlet.
But I digress.
Cut to Cal (also Fassbender), the product of a troubled childhood, who is somehow snatched away from his execution in Texas for murder one and deposited into the care of a mysterious, though massively looming, institute in Spain. There under the tender ministrations of Sofia (Marion Cotillard), the scientist whose name is rife with metaphysical implications. She has figured out how to retrieve genetic memory via a one-armed machine dubbed, with similarly rife implications, the Animus. Cal relives his previous existence as Aguilar while in the literal clutches of this machine, his synapses plugged into an array of computers, and his visual experiences overflowing into the present as he relives Aguilar’s adventure with Apple of Eden all those years ago.
There is much more going on, of course, including the semi-surprise of who is who in this institute dedicated to eradicating violence by, as its director (Jeremy Irons) explains, channeling it more productively. That’s he willing to keep Call hooked up to it even if it means killing him, well, that’s the price you pay.
It was very smart to cast Fassbender, who is also a co-producer. The man does the intensity of a cold hard stare with a ferocity the belies the fact that he’s not moving a muscle. Nobility of purpose as Aguilar and nihilistic insouciance as Cal are equally compelling, particularly when Cal belts out a delightfully belligerent rendition of Pasty Cline’s “Crazy” while being swooped around by the Animus. He’s making an essentially cardboard character as complex as humanly possible with a few well-placed dashes of genuine dazed confusion, and he deserves a serious round of applause for making it work as well as he does. Cotillard is also good, with a calm demeanor and soothing voice that almost makes sense of Sofia talking Cal out of strangling her.
In both worlds, Fassbender is low-key, amid the general screaming, clanging swords, and the fireballs of auto-da-fés in the past, and in the present within the antiseptic environment of the institute where everyone speaks in a sotto voice even when rioting or breaking someone’s heart. It’s that bifurcation I was on about. The story in the present strives to be a philosophical adventure on a par with Aguilar’s mission in the past, but it’s one with the same lack of depth. Platitudes and set pieces play out with arch but ultimately meaningless dialogue in a film as fanatically devoted to its effects spectacles as the Assassins are to keeping that apple out of the Templar’s hands. And just as stolid while doing so. At least it has some satisfying art direction, and Brenden Gleeson in an extended cameo.
ASSASSIN’S CREED would like to be a franchise. If anyone can make that happen, it’s Fassbender, but for every film he would make as Cal/Aguilar, it’s one less film he’ll be making that’s worthy of his talent.