“Assassin’s Creed” gamers may be the only ones who truly appreciate the cinematic adaptation of Ubisoft’s popular game franchise. No, I’ve never played “Assassin’s Creed,” but I’ve seen the movie and that’s enough for me. Everybody else should wait until it shows up on home video. You can watch it more than once then and make better sense out of its strange shenanigans. Aside from the atmospheric and intriguing “Assassin’s Creed” trailers, I had little idea what to expect from the eternal clash between Good and Evil. Little did I expect that this $130 million movie would be such a dreary potboiler. Nevertheless, “Assassin’s Creed” (** OUT OF ****) will dazzle you with its epic imagery. Andy Nicholson’s production designs are captivating, and “The Light Between Oceans” lenser Adam Arkapaw captures the austere majesty of Andalusia, Spain, as well as the island of Malta, with his widescreen cinematography. In 3-D, the action is spectacular, especially a sequence involving two Assassins feverishly scaling architecture of all kinds to escape from their Templar adversaries and a death sentence by immolation. “Assassin’s Creed” bristles with lots of repetitive close-quarter combat between individuals armed with loads of exotic cutlery. You couldn’t ask for a more prestigious cast. Michael Fassbender continues to defy typecasting, while Jeremy Irons indulges himself as a malevolent villain in a turtleneck. Marion Cotillard finds herself somewhere between Fassbender and Irons, but her character neglects to grasp the realities of her predicament. Her father and she suffer from a rift that neither want to admit until the climax. Charlotte Rampling and Brendan Gleeson lurk ominously on the periphery. Mind you, you won’t find a bad performance. Unfortunately, the characters that these gifted actors play are one-dimensional bores.
The hero of “Assassin’s Creed,” a death row inmate named Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender of “Prometheus”), has lived a nightmare existence. It seems that his homicidal father, Joseph Lynch (Brendan Gleeson of “Suffragette”), killed his mother, Mary Lynch (Essie Davis of “The Babadook”), when Callum was just a child. Eventually, Joseph’s DNA allowed Callum’s darker side to assert itself, and he winds up on death row in Huntsville, Texas. Callum is scheduled to die by lethal injection with no chance of a reprieve. Miraculously, however, after the drugs are injected into his system, he awakens alive and fit in faraway Andalusia, Spain! No, the filmmakers refrain from providing a plausible explanation for this sudden reversal of fate, aside from preserving the hero for later predicaments. The sinister CEO of Abstergo Industries, Dr. Alan Rikkin (a chilling Jeremy Irons of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”) and his naïve scientist daughter, Dr. Sofia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard of “Allied”), have conscripted Callum for their own infamous purposes. The elder Rikkin presides over the modern-day equivalent of the Knights Templar. His daughter and he want to acquire a highly-sought after object known only as Apple of Eden. This fabled Apple of Eden contains the genetic code for human free will. The Knights must have it so they can limit free will and cure mankind of its abiding source of corruption. Abstergo has conceived an extraordinary example of technology called the Animus to achieve their end. This mechanical device resembles a gigantic scorpion’s tale because it can hoist, plummet, and spin the individual attached to it by means of a probe clamped into the back of the neck. Sofia explains that the Animus will transport Callum 500 years into the past so he can regress into the soul of an ancestor, Aguilar de Nerha, who belonged to a clandestine order of assassins that opposed the Knights Templar. Dr. Rikkin believes that connecting Callum to the Animus will enable him to have a “Matrix” like experience so he can revive Aguilar’s memories and lead the Rikkins to the Apple of Eden. The Rikkins have tried this same strategy before on dozens of others with unique skills comparable to Callum who are descendants of Assassins. One thing you can say about “Assassin’s Creed” is that it holds credibility in utter contempt. Absolute hokum from fade-in to fadeout, Kurzel and his writers treat these shenanigans with deadpan solemnity as does the impressive cast. Predictably, none of Rikkins’ pretentious mumbo-jumbo works entirely on Callum, but he comes to believe in himself and his ability to find the Apple after he reconnects with his murderous father on the Abstergo premises.
The problems for “Assassin’s Creed” arise from Justin Kurzel’s flawed direction and a predictable boilerplate screenplay. “Macbeth” scripter Michael Lesslie with “Exodus: Gods and Kings” co-scribes Adam Cooper and Bill Collage have generated a completely original story for “Assassin’s Creed” that the Ubisoft video game franchise has never used. Imaginative as this fresh spin is, “Assassin’s Creed” falters in two respects. First, Kurzel and company pile on a surfeit of exposition about the 15thcentury Spanish Inquisition that slows down the action. Your freshman Western Civilization classes may come in handy during this part of the melodramatics. Second, this expository dialogue is delivered in heavily-accented Spanish with English subtitles. Not only must you pay attention to the histrionics, but you must also read dialogue. Third, they also conjure up an interesting version of 21st century technology for the Templars. This technology evoked memories of two far superior movies “Twelve Monkeys” and “The Matrix” for me. Sadly, Kurzel doesn’t wring white-knuckled thrills from this nonsense that is comparable to the thrills in those two earlier films. Fourth, nothing about “Assassin’s Creed” seems palatable. The action alternates between the year 2016 and the year 1492. The 1492 sequences surpass the 2016 scenes, but simultaneous cross-cutting between plots complicates what is already difficult to understand about the mythology of the sacred object that both sides seek: The Apple of Eden. Meantime, the action scenes lack suspense, and the surprises are improbable. Altogether, “Assassin’s Creed” doesn’t qualify as the worst cinematic adaptation of a video game, but neither does it deliver anything either innovative or exhilarating.