The Bold and The Befuddling
Justin Kurzel’s Assassin’s Creed movie is visually stunning, even when it’s also stunningly stupid.
This isn’t going to lead to a spoiler. Trust me. There’s a moment at the end of Assassin’s Creed, just as the movie is wrapping up its final action set piece and taking meticulous steps in the direction of a sequel, in which award-winning and critically lauded actress Marion Cotillard speaks a line that is, by all measures, incredibly important. The only problem is that it’s also completely incomprehensible. So there we are, in the midst of a beautifully composed scene at the end of a visually impressive movie, and it’s gone completely off the rails. It’s almost an admission of failure on the film’s part. It’s telling us, “hey, none of this story stuff matters, anyway. Were you impressed by all the cool blade-fu we did in 15th century Spain? Awesome, we’ll make more.”
So there you have it, Assassin’s Creed.
There’s part of me that’s worried about claiming that it’s visually impressive, as well. The film, which sends modern day Cal (Michael Fassbender) back through the memories of his bloodline back to an ancient order of assassin’s sworn to protect free will itself, has a visual style similar to Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film Macbeth. There’s a lot of red, dusty vistas and when the action drops, it does so in slow motion. When compared to almost any other film based on a video game, this looks like a work of fine art. But if we’re matching it with other moderately budgeted action films, it’s pretty par for the course. What it does have is a visual identity thanks to its filmmaker. Kurzel breathes life into his story with a consistent and specific aesthetic. If he didn’t create such fluid motion and constant movement, we’d probably notice that the production quality of the film’s non-digital sets is more History Channel reenactment than big screen brilliance. Luckily, a lot of the cityscapes where Fassbender’s stunt double is using Parkour to go from building to building are backed with lots of digital work. It’s a bit of a disappointing project from production designer Andy Nicholson, whose previous work includes Gravity and Captain America: The First Avenger.
Like any smart filmmaker, Kurzel has given his film a chance to be special by populating his chalky world with a talented cast. Cotillard and Fassbender do solid work with what they’re given, as does Jeremy Irons. Their performances lend weight to an otherwise silly plot involving the Knights Templar and their centuries-old quest to eliminate free will. It’s the kind of movie where Charlotte Rampling shows up as a diabolical religious leader and Michael K. Williams plays a master of voodoo poisons. This is an abundance of strong, confusingly used resources if there has ever been one.
Despite all of its well-earned crossed looks for a story that’s magnificently dumb, Assassin’s Creed does soar when it comes time to do some old fashioned killing. Kurzel’s action set pieces are steady, kinetic, and supported by a hefty score from his brother Jed. The film keeps a blistering pace for the most part and is perfectly happy resisting the urge to explain things like how all the science of DNA-driven memory time travel works. Because remember, that doesn’t matter. Watch some fluidly choreographed stabbing, instead.