‘Assassin’s Creed’ Review: It’s Less Fun Than Watching Someone Play A Bad Video Game – Forbes
The Box Office:
Assassin’s Creed, opening this Tuesday evening, is 20th Century Fox’s sixth video game adaptation feature. Considering the biggest-grossing of these films is Hitman, which made $99 million worldwide back in November/December 2007, I certainly hope that the budget for Assassin’s Creed is closer to $130m than $200m. You don’t need me to rehash the grim history of video game movies, both in terms of artistic quality and (with a few exceptions) commercial success. And, as you can tell from the review headline, the quality streak sadly remains unbroken.
As for the money question, the hope is that the film can snag a $20 million Fri-Sun/$30m Wed-Sun debut over the holiday. That would be great, especially considering Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are not actually box office draws. But no matter how it opens, we should remember that Fox’s Alien vs. Predator: Requiem earned $41m total off a $26m Tues-Sun holiday debut (Christmas fell on a Tuesday in 2007). While December releases tend to be leggy, I imagine this one’s business will be… brief.
So let’s hope it can nab a decent first few days or at least pull off a patented Fox overseas miracle.
It is a tired cliché to say that a bad video game movie is akin to watching someone else play a bad video game. But Assassin’s Creed takes that trope to the next level. Thanks to a plot device that turns a relatively simple premise into an “spend the whole movie explaining the rules” set-up, this movie is akin to watching someone else watch someone else play a bad video game. That extra layer of detachment creates copious layers of disinterest, rendering what could have been a passable action fantasy into a laughably bad botch.
It is rare to see a movie like Assassin’s Creed trip over itself by focusing on all the wrong elements. If I told you that the movie was about a member of an assassination cult in 1400’s Spain who ran around on roof tops and engaged in all kinds of lethal stunt work to procure an important item, you’d probably say “Hey, that doesn’t sound so bad!” But, the movie, which I assume is faithful to the game on which it is based, creates a secondary layer of storytelling which sucks any interest out of the proceedings by focusing on the sizzle rather than the steak.
The film is about an executed death row inmate (Michael Fassbender) who finds himself alive and imprisoned in a secret laboratory and forced/encouraged to participate in a kind of virtual reality adventure. If I understand it correctly, he is placed in a machine that places his mind into the body of an ancestor so that said ancestor can locate a missing artifact of great importance and place it someplace where present tense folks can locate it. If I am accurate, I just explained in two sentences what the movie takes an hour to explain.
We do get a few scenes of a game/committed Fassbender (and a sidekick played by Ariane Labed) dressed in full video game costume garb bouncing here, there and everywhere and killing his way to eventual victory. But instead of maintaining the momentum of these admittedly well-staged action scenes, we get constantly go back to the present tense action, which consists of Fassbender doing solitary martial arts play-acting like an eight-year-old boy pretending to be Leonardo in front of the mirror and hoping his parents don’t walk in on him. If that sounds unintentionally hilarious, believe me, it is.
Be it due to budget constraints or misplaced ambition, director Justin Kurzel spends far more time in the icy/remote/claustrophobic laboratory than in 1492 Spain. Most of the narrative involves damaged but “good at heart” criminal Fassbender being lectured to and egged on by Jeremy Irons and Marion Cotillard (the father/daughter duo behind this $3 billion-per-year experiment). We have no rooting interest in Fassbender’s redemption beyond the fact that he’s the protagonist and/or a handsome white guy who is a would-be chosen one.
Aside from relying on generic tropes and presumed empathy for a generic “damaged but eventually decent” protagonist (Will be become worthy of Marion Cotillard’s respect?), the film creates a situation in which we, the viewers, have no rooting interest in what should be the film’s centerpiece moments. The sequences set in ancient Spain are so arbitrary and so sans context that they create the impression of walking in on someone else playing a video game (or someone else binging a fantasy show). We don’t know the “in the moment” objectives, perils, or goals for our would-be protagonist as he jumps from rooftop to rooftop. Oh, and the idea that everyone is after “The Apple of Eden” becomes unintentionally hilarious since we end up with a bunch of very serious actors gravely intoning about a very important apple.
The fights and chases are filtered through a lens of disassociation. Unlike, say, Zack Snyder’s underrated Sucker Punch, there is little thematic subtext behind the “this is happening, but not really, but no wait really it is” action sequences. Hence there is next-to-no viewer investment. That’s a shame, because the location work is gorgeous and the actual stunt work is impeccable. The prologue(s) and the scenes set in Spain (which are heavily subtitled) have the feel of trying to make Assassin’s Creed into the first prestige video game movie. But the screenplay lets down and/or outright sabotages the visuals and broad strokes intentions.
Despite the moments of sweeping action and “epic” imagery, this is a 108-minute film where most of the key action and dialogue occurs in a handful of rooms in a single office building. Sure, Fassbender, Irons, and Cotillard (along with the likes of Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling and Michael K. Williams) are better caliber actors than one would expect to find in a video game movie. But the supporting cast gets little beyond a few choice lines. Fassbender can only do so much for a thin protagonist whose arc forces him to act out embarrassing pantomime for much of the film.
The narrative comes to a frankly preposterous ending, basically switching up the game for the sake of setting up a sequel that may never happen and (slight vague spoiler) asking us to celebrate what amounts to a not-very-celebratory act of violence. Assassin’s Creed wants to be the Batman Begins of video game movies, a prestigious and upscale action drama that just happens to be based on a video game. But the film is unwilling to break free of its source material in a way that would allow it to live and breathe as a weighty and poignant character journey first and a video game adaptation second. It instead spends most of its time explaining its own overly complicated rules and arbitrary objectives while merely presuming audience investment.
The film is a labored exercise in false hope, with top-tier talent and strong production values merely resulting in yet another relatively lousy video game movie. It’s the Anakin Skywalker of video game movies, a seemingly promising offering that was meant to save the sub-genre yet leaves it in further darkness. Assassin’s Creed needed to spend less time reading its own instruction manual and more time actually playing its own game.