Monday, January 2, 2017

Brief thoughts on Assassin's Creed.

The medium of video games is an incredible industry that rivals even cinema nowadays, but when it comes to taking those same properties and putting them to the big screen, their track record is terrible. Ignoring easy targets the likes of Super Mario Brothers and Mortal Kombat among others, this very year saw two more making their way into multiplexes to subpar results, one being the epic Warcraft from Duncan Jones, the other being the thoroughly grating Angry Birds Movie. It seems even Michael Fassbender couldn't resist getting in on the fun, having backed an adaptation of Ubisoft's mega-hit Assassin's Creed franchise, reteaming with his respective Macbeth director and co-star Justin Kurzel and Marion Cotillard.

When it comes to breaking the video game curse, Assassin's Creed has as much of a chance as anything. Myself being only mildly familiar with the series (and not particularly gravitating towards them anyway), the games have a great allure in blending high concept sci-fi/fantasy with Prince of Persia style thrills, making for a series with the potential to be an entertaining and cerebral film. However, the problem with this film is the same as many of these video game adaptations, in that even when they're familiar with the material, many of these same people fail to realize what it was that made those games click with players. On top of that, the film struggles to find common ground among both newcomers and diehard fans, with fans likely to be gleeful over series mainstays like the Animus, the death-defying parkour, and the mixture of real-world political movements with fictional new creations, but doesn't succeed in appealing to a general audience. It's not enough for a movie to appeal solely to fans of a source material with such a high price tag and talented crew attached to it.

But to be fair, I would find it hard to think even fans would be pleased by the dull treatment this film is given. If you're at all familiar with the series, you'll know that the games split their time between the present day reality, and the lives of the assassins in the past (usually connected by the DNA of a modern day ancestor). The latter are the sections that take up a large majority of the games, and where a lot of the open world fun and MacGuffin searching takes place. On the other hand, the film version finds itself spending far more time in the present day, focusing more on the complicated inner-workings of the Abstergo company, and the tragic past of main character Callum Lynch. I'd say they take up a good 80% of the running time, which wouldn't be such a problem if it weren't for how bland the film is. Assassin's Creed's world building and exposition are thickly delivered to the point of being incomprehensible, and yet the actual story is very predictable.

The film essentially thrusts the viewer directly into the fray without any sense of context, almost as if it's expecting you to know the inner-mechanics going in, and fails to develop or truly differentiate a single one of its characters. Fassbender is certainly giving it his all in the dual role, but his emotional responses never feel earned due to having been given so little insight into his actual mind. But the true disappointment here is Marion Cotillard, normally one of the most unmatched and luminous performers in the world, but who largely plays passive observer and captain exposition to fill in Lynch on crucial information. Her accent is also a constant distraction, bouncing between British, Australian, Irish, and her native French dialects all within the same scene let alone within the entire film. You also have other characters played by fantastic actors like Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Brendan Gleeson, and Michael K Williams, but the film doesn't give them anything to do other than to play archetypes, or deliver more exposition. Kurzel can't even give a good role to his own wife Essie Davis. It all makes the present day sequences feel incredibly mechanical, and makes one wish that the past sequences with Fassbender's Aguilar, joined by a slick and fierce Ariane Labed, took up more screentime.

And those are the moments that are the most entertaining sections of the film, when the film finally decides to follow the spirit of the original games, and just give the viewer a shot of adrenaline to counteract the monotonous exposition dumps. Yet even these scenes have their own downsides, making distracting use of shaky cam filming, when using more extended takes would have gone a long way to show off the quick-paced choreography. Then again, such a thing would only allow you to dissect how toothless and tame the movie is when it comes to violence, trying to stay truthful to the gritty violence of the original games, but sanitizing and taming the bloody brutality of the M rated games, making the compromises to retain a PG-13 all too apparent. The result is a film that refuses to come to life in spite of everyone's efforts, making you wonder; if a film with this fantastic cast and crew can't make a video game movie work, what will? It only further raises skepticism of video games being incompatible with the big screen,  which is a shame, because there are so many cinematic games that would make for great movies, yet they will likely never happen because their studios can't get their acts together. It's clear that when everyone started Assassin's Creed, they were going for Game of Thrones meets The Matrix. What they ended up with instead is a poor man's Christopher Nolan imitation.

*1/2 / *****

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