Movies based on video games don’t have a wild success rate – for every Resident Evil there are many that have crashed and burned – and that’s usually due to the exclusion of the interactive experience. There has to be another way to engage the fanbase and on top of that, games have a dense mythology that can often be confusing and off-putting to the uninitiated.
So, kudos goes to director Justin Kurzel whose aim with Assassin’s Creed is to remain true to the fictional history of real-world events offered by the game and marrying that with an origin story that lends itself extremely well to plenty of superhero spectacle. You don’t need to have played the game to enjoy its dynamic pleasures. At the same time those au fait with all that world’s complexities will have a good time too.
If Kurzel’s movie has a major fault it’s keeping the core story opaque until about two-thirds through. Essentially the focus is on a centuries-long covert war between the Templars and the Assassins. Both sects are searching for the Apple of Eden that holds the genetic code to free will. The former want it to quash disobedience in the world and the latter to prevent them from controlling hearts and minds.
In the modern day, the Templars hide behind the front of the shadowy Abstergo Industries, run by Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) whose daughter Sofia (Marion Cotillard) has invented the Animus machine (impressively changed from the game’s simple chair) that can tap into genetic memories of imprisoned Assassins to regress them to their ancestral past.
Their latest guinea pig is career criminal Cal Lynch (Michael Fassbender), a character new to the game universe, forced to relive the role of Assassin Aguilar de Nerha (Fassbender again) in the time of the Spanish Inquisition. But as Lynch’s spiritual power is greater than any Templar has seen, he also begins to gain the knowledge and skills necessary for his deep-rooted Assassin alter ego to confront age-old enemies.
The finale, set in the sumptuous Freemasons’ Hall in London, is a swirl of death, destruction and destiny as each character moves into place, like chess pieces, for the next hoodie-wearing episodes in the proposed trilogy.
The most successful aspect of this engaging enterprise is the parallel imagery between Lynch strapped into the present-day Matrix-like Animus machine while also reenacting history through glorious Spanish locales, performing elaborate sword fights, carriage chases and close hand-to-hand skirmishes across tiled rooftops.
Coupled with the Parkour-inspired stunts Kurzel insists on keeping the CGI in check for the feel of an old school adventure and executes the action with a great deal of care and attention to detail. The result is a thrilling, visually nightmarish Dan Brown-style conspiracy tale where Mortal Kombat meets Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The script isn’t quite so smooth with lines like “We work in the dark to serve the light”. (The location of the Apple might cause a few guffaws as well.) But a quality cast that includes Charlotte Rampling and Brendan Gleeson delivers these clunkers with an almost Shakespearean grandiosity and it gives the text far more potency than it deserves.
It’s worth bearing in mind that Fassbender, Cotillard, Kurzel and his younger brother Jed (whose score hits exactly the right levels of rousing bombast), previously worked on Macbeth together, so are well versed in mining for depth and feeling between the bigger, louder moments.
Those uninterested in video games may still not be convinced, but as a purely eye-popping dramatic experience, with its epic sweep, fast-paced action and yes, a bit of profundity too, Assassin’s Creed is richer in texture than you might expect. There is some real thought behind it that could see it flower into a bona fide movie franchise.
Assassin’s Creed is in cinemas from 1 January 2017