Assassin's Creed (Movie Review)

Christmas 2016 was one of the hardest I’ve had in my life. While everyone else enjoyed dinner with their families and partied their socks off, I had to deal with a broken oven, a party being cancelled, and a family fight. It would’ve been the worst if it hadn’t been for one gift to myself, which I had to wait until last Friday for. It was, of course, the Assassin’s Creed film. After showing for three weeks in America, the film finally came out in the UK. While many people hope it’ll break the so called “video-game curse”, my own hopes for the film were personal. Like any fan, I wanted it to be true to the games - but most importantly, I wanted it to rekindle my love for a series I nearly turned my back on. Did the film succeed?

Read on to find out. (SPOILER WARNING)

In 1988, nine-year-old Callum Lynch (played by Michael Fassbender) witnesses the death of his mother at the hands of his father. Cut to the present, and Cal is now a criminal about to be executed for murder. On the night of his death, agents from Abstergo Industries - the modern front of the Knights Templar - abduct Cal and take him to their headquarters in Madrid. There he meets Dr Sofia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard) and her father, Abstergo’s CEO Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), who force him to use a machine called the Animus to experience the memories of his ancestors. Cal steps into the boots of Aguilar de Nerha (also played by Michael); an Assassin in 14th-century Spain and a sworn enemy of the Templars. Through the Animus, Cal inherits Aguilar’s fighting skills and plans to use them to escape from Abstergo. However, Sofia and Alan have their own plans - and they’re not all as noble as they claim to be.

I managed to catch the film last Friday, when cinemas started to show it during the day. However, it was moved to a different screen without my knowledge and I missed the opening scene (a prologue with Aguilar). I was lucky enough to get in the right screen just as the story began in earnest - and I’m glad to report my experience didn’t suffer for it. The film isn’t perfect, but I can honestly tell you it’s far better than every game-based film we’ve seen before. It’s true to the games - a given since it’s produced by Ubisoft itself - but it’s also brave enough to take risks to give us something different. Instead of re-telling the story of, say, Desmond or Ezio, Assassin’s Creed tells its own story with a new set of characters living in the games’ universe. It’s a bold move for Fassbender, who also produced the film, and his director Justin Kurzel, with whom he worked on 2015’s adaptation of Macbeth. Together, they take the best qualities of that film and put them into a larger budget: gritty visuals, fast-paced battle scenes, and a preference for physical effects. They go surprisingly well with the series, resulting in battles across time which are both brutal and beautiful. That said, the film isn’t without its flaws, some of which had nothing to do with the Creed’s transition to the big screen.

Whether you’re familiar with the series or not, the first thing you’ll love or hate is the protagonist, Callum Lynch. Despite his connection to the Assassins, Cal is a much darker character than Desmond, having been a criminal since his mother died. He also spends much of his time hating his father - even wanting to kill him - for it, so for many people, the fact that Fassbender is playing the role may be the only thing keeping them from hating him. After all, a criminal protagonist is harder to relate to than a bartender. But as the film progressed, and the reasons for Cal’s situation became clear, I began to like him. By the end, I was more invested in him than in any modern character from the games. It was a harder sell with the other Assassins Callum meets at Abstergo: Moussa (Michael K. Williams), Nathan (Callum Turner), Emir (Matias Varela), and Lin (Michelle H. Lin). Despite being part of the series’ nominal protagonists, Moussa and his friends go to extreme lengths to find out whether Cal is a friend or not. If you haven’t played the games, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re antagonists. This moral ambiguity is both a strength and a weakness - it makes the Assassins feel more human, but you won’t know who to root for until the end. It doesn’t help that Nathan, Emir, and Lin go unnamed in the film; I had to learn their names in the credits.

Another element of the film that will divide opinion is Aguilar’s story. In the games, you spend more time in the past than you do in the present, but here the focus is switched. Cal enters the Animus three times in the film, and these scenes - called “regressions” by Sofia - make up a third of its length. That means over half an hour is dedicated to Aguilar’s battle with the Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada and his right-hand man Ojeda. It may seem disappointing, but the quality of Aguilar’s scenes more than makes up for it. Justin Kurzel could’ve taken the easy route and filmed them all on green screen, but instead he went on location and used as many real effects as possible. Better yet, the actors speak entirely in Spanish and perform most of their own stunts. It’s amazing to watch because Aguilar and his friends do a lot of fighting, running, and jumping over rooftops without stopping to breathe - and unlike their modern descendants, their goals and motives are undoubtedly clear. The problem is you’ll need to pay attention when the hidden blades are drawn. Like in Macbeth, Assassin’s Creed’s battles are fast and furious, and if you’re not careful, you could miss an important moment. Some people may find them harder to follow, thanks to the film cutting back and forth between Aguilar and Callum in the Animus. Unlike in the games, where the Animus was a VR chair, the film’s model is a giant, robotic arm that forces Cal to re-enact Aguilar’s fights as he relives them. It’s an idea that’s well suited to film - even Ubisoft love it - but not everyone will like watching it in action. Finally, some knowledge of the Spanish Inquisition may be needed to fully enjoy Aguilar’s scenes. Unless you know your history on Torquemada, you will be disappointed.

Despite it being canon, the main thing that will bother fans and newcomers alike will be the way the film handles the games’ deeper elements. In the games, the Templars hunt for artefacts called Pieces of Eden, which allow them to control the minds of other people. The full story behind them was too complicated to keep in the film, so Ubisoft decided to narrow it down to reach a wider audience - the Rikkins are searching for one artefact, the Apple, and its history is simplified. It was the right thing to do, but the way the Apple was explained could’ve been clearer. Sofia and Alan refer to it as “the cure for violence”; a line newcomers will find confusing. Sadly, it’s one of many lines from Sofia which either baffled me or fell flat. Cottilard’s performance, and her caring attitude towards Cal, kept me invested in her. Sofia’s interactions with the Assassins not only made me question her role in the film, but also created conflict with her oppressive father. Alan Rikkin is one of only two characters appearing from the games, but whether you know him or not, Jeremy Irons’ performance won’t disappoint. Just bear in mind that the Rikkins aren’t your typical villains. In the world of Assassin’s Creed, typical villains don’t exist.

Assassin's Creed won't be the one to "break the curse", but it makes a huge effort to be better than every game-based film that has come before. It strikes a balance between being true to the series and walking its own path - and most importantly, it brought me back to the Brotherhood. I urge you to see it and judge for yourself. Safety and peace be upon you.

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