Assassin’s Creed seems to be the result of a miscommunication. A video game adaptation that looks like perfect January-movie fodder for Sony’s Screen Gems division has instead been produced as a holiday-released reunion of Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, and their Macbeth director Justin Kurzel, with Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, and Charlotte Rampling along for the ride. It’s not unusual to see great European actors appearing in big-budget dreck, of course, but the participation of Fassbender (who also produced!) and Cotillard seems particularly unnecessary. They’ve already been extraordinarily lucky in their blockbuster dabbling: Fassbender playing a younger Magneto in the resuscitation of the X-Men series and Cotillard working repeatedly with Christopher Nolan.
As far as nerd-skewing pulp goes, Assassin’s Creed is a long way from the likes of The Dark Knight Rises or X-Men: Days Of Future Past. It’s the kind of movie that opens with an underlit, subtitled, text-prefaced, and deeply boring prologue that some genre filmmakers seem convinced provides an instantly mesmerizing entrée into their joyless world-building. Here, the tedium (with the help of onscreen text) labors to explain that the Knights Templar are in a centuries-long pursuit of the Apple Of Eden (a metal doohickey of a MacGuffin that is, confusingly, the thing that got man cast out of Eden, yet is not an actual apple), which will give them control over mankind, eradicating free will. The Knights are opposed by members of the Assassin’s Creed, including Aguilar (Fassbender), who lives during the Spanish Inquisition.
The Assassins emphasize that they want all people to think for themselves, and tell each other that “everything is permitted” in pursuit of this goal—in other words, they’re a radical libertarian organization. The movie establishes early on that in this world, the Knights are bad and the Assassins are the good kind of bad, which makes especially puzzling its decision to follow Aguilar’s modern-day descendant Callum Lynch (also Fassbender) as he is kept prisoner by an industrial arm of the Knights. The audience essentially watches Callum come to the belated realization that he really doesn’t want to be forcibly imprisoned to conduct Assassins-related research, even if the Knights did spring him from death row, and even if his Assassin father may have killed his mother.
The movie also watches the Knights, primarily scientist Sophia Rikkin (Cotillard), as they watch Callum participate in a trippy form of ancestral time travel, where he plugs into a giant metal arm and experiences the memories of Aguilar. This is where most of the movie’s action sequences come from, and some of them have some neat touches, like a foot chase that has Aguilar and his associates leaping and running on clotheslines. But it’s hard to discern what anyone, from moviegoers to the Knights themselves, is supposed to get out of these displays; the whereabouts of the movie’s MacGuffin, maybe, but cataloging dozens of bloodless stabbings proves a surprisingly ineffective method of tracking a powerful metal non-apple.
Even stranger, this conceit limits Fassbender’s agency, even as he features in scene after scene. The first time the movie cuts back to Callum in what amounts to a green-screen room, ghosted images of the flashbacks swooshing around him as he embodies his ancestor martial arts moves, it’s a neat effect. Around the 10th time, it starts to seem like maybe the filmmakers don’t have much of an arsenal at their disposal. Assassin’s Creed does deserve some points for the resilience of its assumption that this video game nonsense represented the bones of a good, or even coherent, feature film. The movie is at least interestingly confusing until about the halfway mark, when monotony sets in for good.
Sorting out the hows and whys of Knights, Assassins, apples, and Jeremy Irons would be less of a concern (or chore) if Kurzel made the movie a distinctive visual experience, like the better Resident Evil and Underworld movies. Kurzel trades the reds of his Macbeth for faded blues and gunmetal grays, but he retains the clouds of mists and coatings of dust and grime—though these trappings don’t obscure as much as the cutting that renders many of the fight scenes unreadable.
It’s not as if this represents a major comedown from Kurzel’s Macbeth, which also ran out of steam (though not mist) by the halfway mark. Like that Shakespeare adaptation, Assassin’s Creed is most compelling when Fassbender and Cotillard whisper at each other in close proximity. Both actors have such adult intensity that their participation in a juvenile fantasy (replete with simultaneous hood-flipping and at least a half dozen dramatic dives from great heights, along with the aforementioned self-satisfied libertarianism) becomes a source of bizarre fascination—for a little while, anyway. Assassin’s Creed pushes their charisma to the limits, then stabs it bloodlessly and jumps off a building.