The assassins of Assassin’s Creed always have a literal trick up their sleeve: a spring-loaded dagger with which they can surprise and overcome their foes. The makers of this narratively and visually overwrought cinematic adaptation of the action-adventure video-game series believe that they, too, have a secret weapon: When the film stops even pretending to make a lick of sense, they simply have Michael Fassbender take off his shirt. For some, that may in fact be enough satisfaction, but it doesn’t excuse the film’s failure to honor both the game’s historical trappings and its parkour-packed bona fides.
The basic conceit of Assassin’s Creed, both the video-game series and film, is that there’s been an ancient war between Assassins, who believe that information should be open for the betterment of humanity, and Templars, who aim to privatize knowledge for personal gain. In the modern day, Templars like Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard) and her father, Alan (Jeremy Irons), are winning—using their financial resources to imprison Assassins and then hack into their memories using a technology known as the Animus. It says a lot about the lopsided mythology that we learn more about this rivalry than about the specific Assassin at the film’s center: Fassbender’s sarcastic and incredulous Callum Lynch, who was orphaned in 1986 and then abducted in the middle of his execution for capital crimes in 2016. The same goes for Callum’s fierce and bearded ancestor, Aguilar (also played by Fassbender), for while there’s actual history behind Aguilar’s guerrilla resistance against the Spanish Inquisition, and his rival, Torquemada (Javier Gutiérrez), is a real figure, you’d know none of that from the film’s haphazard name-dropping.
All of this is a needlessly convoluted framework for the film, one that separates Alan’s evil, present-day machinations from the thrilling action sequences set in 1492 Spain. In splitting its focus between two timelines, Assassin’s Creed ends up with both blurry action that often looks digitally faked and a fractious plot that’s stuck over-explaining itself. It fails both as a science-fiction thriller and historical action film, and its characters are shredded between the two genres to the thinnest of archetypes, from Moussa (Michael K. Williams), a modern-day assassin who favors smoke bombs, to Maria (Ariane Labed), Aguilar’s ass-kicking paramour, both of whom are glorified action figures with no purpose beyond their poses.
Many of these issues lie at the feet of director Justin Kurzel, who ramrods the plot into the middle of otherwise serviceable, adrenaline-pumping sequences. Each time Aguilar is about to complete a massive stunt, whether it’s taking a leap of faith off a building or clinging off the edge of a cliff, Callum “desynchronizes” with the Animus, leaving the memory incomplete or corrupted. This is action-movie blue balls, as the filmmakers tease their audience with the shot of Aguilar plummeting hundreds of feet to the ground before cutting away mid-leap to the scarcely thrilling sight of Alan pensively watching the action from his perch at Abstergo Industries.
Kurzel keeps pulling back this curtain, such that even the film’s highlight—a lengthy parkour escape across the rooftops of an ancient Spanish city—is constantly interrupted to show Callum suspended in midair by the mechanical arm of the Animus, flailing at the digital shadows being projected by the terminals Sophia and Alan are sitting behind. The effect of Aguilar daringly leaping from eave to eave isn’t enhanced by watching Callum get hoisted around like a puppet any more than The Matrix would have benefited from lengthier shots of Neo lying supine on a bed. Nothing is gained by reminding audiences that the film’s lengthy tracking shots of sumptuous Spanish architecture are most likely being artificially rendered by computers.
Ultimately, the film itself seems desynchronized: the music in an early horseback chase misses the beat of the action; the actors—namely Brendan Gleeson and Charlotte Rampling—seem stiffer than any of the characters from the video-game series; and the plot is filled with holes given that the assassins are inexplicably allowed free rein of their prison. The compression of a lengthy video game into an under-two-hour film also works against the plot: Fassbender does his best to sell that his character is going crazy once Callum begins to suffer the hallucinatory side effects of the Animus—“the bleeding effect”—but is given only a single scene in which to do so. Kurzel’s less-than-daring direction doesn’t help either: Instead of overlapping the past and present in a way that makes one question reality (think Inception or Doctor Strange), the moment when Callum spars with a piss-poor CGI phantom of Aguilar shows only how insubstantial both narratives are.
Such nonsense plotting and cheap effects are why the film’s biggest laugh comes from its most self-deprecating line, when Callum stares directly at the audience and asks, “What the fuck is going on?” Instead of distracting audiences with more of the film’s action, Assassin’s Creed unwisely attempts to explain it. In the process, the film forgets the very creed the assassins keep repeating: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”