The Assassin’s Creed film has one important question to answer: When audiences walk out of the theater, will they want more?
That’s all that matters. The movie is set to be the tentpole of a franchise, and it’s Ubisoft’s first* foray into adapting one of its IPs into a full-length feature film. Ubisoft is seriously committed, in case you couldn’t tell by the big names attached: Michael Fassbender is a prestigious Oscar nominee, and Marion Cotillard is an Oscar winner for Best Actress. Director Justin Kurzel has a short filmography, but he’s well-known for adapting another historical fantasy: Macbeth, in 2015.
*Ed. note: It’s best if we all forget Prince of Persia ... theatergoers did.
No, I’m not comparing Assassin’s Creed to Shakespeare. Its dialogue leaves a lot to be desired, and its more villainous characters could really benefit from soliloquies explaining to the audience what they want, and why.
But like I said, Assassin’s Creed has a less esoteric goal. And against all odds, with a quirky franchise and a team of star talent, Assassin’s Creed succeeds at being an enjoyable action film — and I walked out of my theater genuinely, truly excited about where the story could go.
The film follows two Assassins, both played by Michael Fassbender: Aguilar de Nerha, in 15th-century Spain, and his descendant Callum Lynch, who knows nothing of his Assassin ancestry and yet — because of it — ends up a Templar captive at Abstergo in the present day.
Under the watchful eye of Templar scientist Sophia Rikkin (Cotillard) and her father, Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), Cal is forced to enter the Animus and relive Aguilar’s memories in order to lead the Templars to the Apple of Eden, an ancient magical artifact of which Aguilar is the last known owner.
It’s Cal’s journey that is at the center of the film, and Michael Fassbender excels in the role. When the material is good, he rocks it, and his ability to emote means that even when the writing falls short, he’s still enjoyable to watch.
The movie isn’t totally immune to flat dialogue and poorly written exposition, both for character motivations, and for the whole Assassin mythos. In fact, exposition — too much, or not enough — is at the heart of the film’s weak spots. The film waffles back and forth between two extremes, but does sometimes land on a happy middle ground.
Fassbender doesn’t suffer too much from this, because his character is completely ignorant about the Assassins and Templars. Cotillard and Irons, however, must bear the brunt of the expository work here. Both are doing their best. Cotillard in particular gets some fantastic character beats that are promising. Her Sophia Rikkin believes that violence is a hereditary disease that can be eradicated. She hopes to do that through her scientific work with the Animus, and a people that she believes are prone to violence: the Assassins. In this film she’s less of a villain, and more of a misguided idealist.
Jeremy Irons could create a villain out of nothing, and he does. Alan Rikkin, Sophia’s father, has a more traditional Templar goal of wiping out the Assassins and, oh, free will too. This is evidently an ideological conflict between father and daughter, but not enough is done to clarify that before the final showdown. Irons doesn’t get many lines and many of them are clunkers, but I wouldn’t want to see this part played by a lesser actor.
Unlike Warcraft, another big-budget video game movie released this year, Assassin’s Creed chooses to hold back some of the lore, and that contributes to its strength. To be clear, I'm not saying that the film completely rewrites Assassin’s Creed as we know it — only that someone very smart was like, “Hey, what if we didn’t cram this thing full of references and allusions that only super-fans will understand?” I still got the sense that the Assassin’s Creed we’re familiar with is compatible with the world presented in the film.
Rather than trying to paint a broad picture of what the Assassin-versus-Templar conflict looks like in the modern day, Assassin’s Creed confines itself to the Abstergo facility, where Sophia Rikkin oversees experiments on dozens of captive Assassins. This is a move atypical to the games, where the present-day arc is decreasingly important.
Even the historical sequences serve to bolster Cal’s story. The bleeding effect — in which people who use the Animus start to relive memories even when they’re not hooked up — is a huge part of the film. When Cal is in the Animus, we see ghostlike representations of his memories swirl around him like dust. Outside of the Animus, his ancestor Aguilar essentially begins to haunt him. Cal shadowboxes with him when he’s locked up in his cell-like room at Abstergo, and hallucinates Aguilar watching him.
As the Templars push Cal to find the Apple of Eden, the film drops us into striking historical scenes with very little setup. The audience never sees the smaller moments that connect Aguilar’s conflicts with the medieval Spanish Templars. To that end, they consist mostly of setpieces. But oh, what setpieces they are. I stepped away from each one feeling a giddy sort of joy. One of the first ones, a high-speed carriage chase across a dusty Spanish desert, made me pause to examine my reaction. Holy shit, I thought. I’m really enjoying this movie. My pulse was racing, I was leaning forward in my chair — I was freaking invested.
If you’re hoping for the witty, wisecracking historical Assassins the series is known for, well ... they’re not here. Aguilar and his companions — with Ariane Labed’s Maria taking second billing — are completely mission-oriented and serious. They are trying to protect the Apple of Eden from scheming Templars, driven by Grand Inquisitor Torquemada, played with fiery intensity by Javier Gutierrez.
The historical sequences are absolutely brimming with incredible visuals. Director Justin Kurzel’s filthy, fantastical medieval Spain is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s less sanitary than most Hollywood productions — less sanitary than the actual Assassin’s Creed games, come to that. Among the spectators at a heretic burning are women with lead-white faces and high foreheads who look alien to the modern viewer — while also being historically accurate. Less accurate, perhaps, are the skulls worn by peasant onlookers, and hoisted on pikes, as well as Queen Isabella’s face tattoos. But Kurzel’s vision of Spain is cohesive and beautiful, dirty and violent. It pushes back against simplified portrayals of medieval Western Europe, and it means that Assassin’s Creed doesn’t look like Generic Historical Action Film #75.
The decontextualization of Aguilar’s scenes might sound like a negative point. Instead, it’s why I didn’t mind that the historical sequences — the reason I love Assassin’s Creed — aren’t central to this story. Fleshing out the historical characters would force the film to split its time between two equally important stories, giving the film more chances to fail. Instead, Assassin’s Creed goes out of its way to emphasize that it is Cal experiencing Aguilar’s memories. Fight scenes cut back and forth between Aguilar, and Cal performing Aguilar’s movements in the VR-via-hallucination machine that is the Animus. In his silence, Aguilar seems to become a mythical figure.
And it works, because Cal is only just learning about his heritage as an Assassin. The Assassins feel strange, frightening and out of reach. And they are. One thing I think the film does particularly well is make the Assassins and Templars look equally batshit to the viewer. Yes, the Templars are the ones kidnapping Cal and hooking him up to the Animus against his will. But the Assassins are fervently devoted to their Creed, to the point of seeming cultish. A video game doesn’t need to work as hard to justify heroes who are literally mass murderers. We’re just here to have a good time, after all. But the film understands that this isn’t normal, and takes pains to bring the audience to the side of the Assassins through Cal, who starts off being just as horrified by them as my mom would be if I showed her a multi-kill in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.
“Not everything deserves to live,” Cal tells Sophia during a tense moment. But does this film deserve to exist as part of a series? I hope so, because I think I deserve to see it grow. Ultimately, the parts of the Assassin’s Creed universe left unexplored by the film mean that when I ask, “Do I want more of this?” my answer is a resounding yes. By not blowing its load in the first film, Assassin’s Creed has laid the first stepping stone to what I hope will be a gradual expansion of the Assassin and Templar conflict.
Michael Fassbender is a good actor who can carry a franchise, and the film serves as a compelling origin story for Sophia Rikkin, as well as Callum Lynch. Clumsy exposition doesn’t ruin a film that has a strong visual identity, fantastic action sequences and characters that I’m ready to spend more time with already.