“Based on a video game.” Are there five words more reviled in the realm of cinema? Only two such films have topped 60% among Rotten Tomatoes critics while 11 of them have hit the 10% mark or lower. Not one has cracked the half-billion hallmark at the global box office. So few unlocked achievements, so many respawns. Oftentimes, the only thing less fun than watching someone else play video games is watching someone else make a video game movie. This month, we’ll find out if the latest Mortal Kombat film is boss level or a misfire along the lines of Leeroy Jenkins. In the meantime, Game On looks at some of the more interesting, inspiring or, yes, insufferable video-game movies. Good, bad, average. It’s all about the experience points.
What does it mean to be alone but not alone? To have full awareness of where you’ve been but cloud-obscured views of where you’re going? These are the questions that keep pimp-killing malcontent Callum “Cal” Lynch (Michael Fassbender) awake at night inside his quarters at the Abstergo Institute in Madrid.
At the institute, Cal undergoes wild experiments intended to brand him as living proof of the link between heredity and crime. The secrets he could unlock might curb violent behavior forever, preventing such aberrance from putting a $9 trillion ding in the annual global economy. (Like most scientific endeavors, Abstergo is underfunded — given only $3 billion a year to address this issue.)
“Why the aggression?” Dr. Sofia Riikin (Marion Cotillard) asks Cal. “I’m an aggressive person,” Cal answers. He is not a man for pretense. But he also knows when the weight of existence grows unbearable. So Cal must move lest he be felled for standing still. For what is life, really, if not eternal rounds of shadowboxing with our past selves? That’s what Cal does with fleeting visions he has of Aguilar de Nerha, a gifted Assassin (capitalization purposeful) and Cal’s Spanish descendent from 500-plus years ago. Or at least that’s what Cal does when Sofia’s not hooking him up to the Animus. This giant gimbal-powered gadget connects Cal to genetic memories of de Nerha, lets him relive de Nerha’s adventures, and allows the results to be observed by Abstergo bigwig and Sofia’s father, Alan Riikin (Jeremy Irons, gazing onward even more seriously than in either Justice League incarnation).
However incremental or inconsequential it may be, all of us compromise in ways that corrupt us until a path forward is no longer clear. And what does it feel like to be bound to the past, fated to the future and incapable of enjoying the present? If we’re like Cal, that whole sensation causes us to collapse into mental anguish as we’re carted off to another session with the Animus — cackling and scream-crooning Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” with the A-plus poop-strain face for which Fassbender has become famous.
To watch 2016’s Assassin’s Creed is to imagine director Justin Kurzel delivering a doctoral thesis on how the successful video-game series is actually an elegy for the eternal impulse of violence … and cracking up every few minutes at the absurdity of what he’s been given $125 million to argue. Stupidly gorgeous and gorgeously stupid, Assassin’s Creed is the first video-game film that aspires to arthouse bonafides as well as awesome beatdowns. As another would-be franchise crushed under the weight of a worldwide gross that wasn’t large enough, it’s certain to be the last.
And yet it might be the best video-game film adaptation there is — or at least neck-and-neck with Resident Evil: Extinction. For the abundance of uncut exposition that Cotillard snorts and rubs on her gums, Assassin’s Creed is an admirably aesthetic and abstract experience. There’s a purity to the way it does not even pretend to characterize any of its people beyond their narrative aims. Generally speaking, it’s like watching Cotillard and Irons watch Fassbender play one of the video games. It’s 13% closing credits. It’s kind of glorious.
The film opens with a scroll about how the Knights Templar have sought the Apple of Eden for centuries, certain that it contains mankind’s genetic code for freewill. The Templars, those sneaky little buggers, want to delete the code and control the world. Only the brotherhood of Assassins like de Nerha can stop them. For posterity, the next scene repeats all of this in Spanish language with comma-spliced English subtitles. At this point, if you didn’t know Kurzel went from a version of Macbeth with Fassbender and Cotillard to this, such news likely won’t surprise you.
Assassin’s Creed then jumps to Baja California circa 1986, where a young Cal is introduced popping rooftop bicycle wheelies to the tune of a Black Angels song from 2010. Complain about temporal fidelity all you want, but this movie lives and dies by the Assassin’s Creed, OK? As it says: Nothing is true. Everything is permitted. Anyway, Cal sees his dad kill his mom and plummets into three decades of anguish that conclude with him murdering a pimp, facing lethal injection (on his birthday no less!) and being whisked away to the Abstergo Institute after his death is faked.
When he’s jacked into the Matr … sorry, ANIMUS, Cal embodies the actions of de Nerha (also Fassbender) in the present day. This means that the luscious, largely practical-effect action sequences under skylines that look like 15th Century Fox regularly cut to a few seconds of Cal scampering up a concrete wall as Sofia says “Commence rehabilitation” or “Run a systems check and load his condition” or “Leap of Faith!” — referencing the video games’ signature move, re-enacted here with a stuntman’s actual 125-foot freefall.
That’s one foot for every million spent on this endeavor. As expensive box-office orphans go, Assassin’s Creed is one in which you can definitely see where the money went. Kurzel’s action plays like rollicking rock ‘n’ roll under the superficial requiem, including a thrilling horse-carriage chase, abscondence from an auto-da-fé, rooftop parkour scrambles and general hand-to-hand combat.
Fassbender also performed most of his stunts, indicative of his truly bizarre commitment to this consommé of crackpot story bits that anyone thought could become a film franchise. Along with Cotillard and Kurzel, Fassbender allegedly reworked the by-committee screenplay (because who wouldn’t rewrite the work of the Tower Heist and Allegiant crew). He’s also a producer on the film and apparently assisted in the editing room.
As big a star as his X-Men movies made him, Fassbender could exert only so much creative force. It’s said that Assassin’s Creed originally clocked in at 140 minutes. With 15 minutes of credits here, that’s 40 minutes lost (including a subplot with a teenage Assassin). It’s the same old story of studio ass-covering on what they sense will be a mammoth bomb. And boy, do you feel the movie just quit. It denies us the obvious pleasures of watching Cal and company tear things up in modern-day London. No big shock that the Riikins are actually Templars pursuing the Apple of Eden (which de Nerha has hidden) and that Cal, actualized by his genetic tourism with the past, embraces his destiny as a modern-day Assassin to stop them.
(Cal gets a boost from fellow Abstergo guests like the one played by Michael K. Williams. When Williams says “They call me Moussa, but my name is Baptiste,” it’s supposed to tickle pleasure centers for fans of the video game. For the rest of us, it just presses the oft-pushed button that people have been casting Williams on Wire cred alone for years and giving him nothing to do.)
The weirdest thing? You might find yourself wanting those extra acts. Maybe you’ll just be eager to gaze upon more sumptuous visuals of Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography, Andy Nicholson’s production design and Sammy Sheldon Differ’s hand-sewn costumes or more deeply luxuriate in the pulsing orchestral drone of the score by Jed Kurzel (Justin’s brother). Perhaps they had another cameo on the level of a hoo-boy surprise of supreme, sublime paycheck serendipity that is REDACTED’s appearance as Cal’s father. (A hint: The same guy also played dad to a Fassbender character in a different film released a month later.) You might want to chuckle a bit more at the lip service it pays to society’s willful capitulation of civil liberties while riding the jock of Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Christopher Nolan’s Batman Films. Or you just want to see some cool explosions erupt near the London Eye.
Assassin’s Creed is feral and erudite, impenetrable and impish. A film willfully up its own ass in a way that just makes me love it a little more each time. Its appeal is tough to defend but also difficult to deny. In the end, though, its failure brought on exactly what its villains wanted, at least in a cinematic sense: a future purged of the Assassin’s Creed.