Last year, director Justin Kurzel and actors Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard teamed up for a prestigious cinematic adaptation, a bloody, mad take on “Macbeth.” This year the trio moves from Shakespeare to — a video game?
Taking on the popular game “Assassin’s Creed” seems like quite the left turn, but while uneven, it’s an exciting, strange ride, thoroughly stamped with Kurzel’s unique visual style.
There is a complicated and deep mythology behind the game, and the film follows it faithfully for the most part. Callum Lynch (Fassbender) is a death row inmate with a violent childhood. He is put to death by lethal injection, but wakes up in a clinic at the shadowy Abstergo corporation, whose lead scientist, Dr. Sofia Rikkin (Cotillard), claims she is researching “the cure to violence.”
Cal is harnessed to a giant mechanical arm called the animus and forced to regress to 15th-century Spain, where he fights the Spanish Inquisition as his hooded assassin ancestor, Aguilar. Like a video game! And Abstergo? It’s just a front for the Knights Templar, eternal mortal enemy of the assassins.
Both groups want to get their hands on the Apple of Eden, which has the genetic code for freewill (whatever that is). The Knights Templar want to bend people into lives of peace through mental obedience, while the assassins are all about freewill, violence and all.
If this story sounds hokey, it is, and the script by Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage manages to be at once far too complicated and extremely shallow. A few lines elicit giggles, and some plot points feel ripped from “National Treasure.”
But despite the tortured writing, Kurzel shoots the heck out of the film, especially the flashbacks, when Aguilar and his assassin companion Maria (Ariane Labed) parkour around ancient Andalusia, kicking some serious Templar butt. We know from “Macbeth” just how well Kurzel and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw shoot grimy, dusty, bloody medieval times. You’ll spend the film waiting for Cal to get back in the animus so we can soar around Seville again.
The scenes set at the Abstergo facility aren’t as visually exciting, but the sound design and score are tremendous, combining ancient Arabic music with droning drums and whispers to create a hallucinatory aural experience.
Though sometimes confounding, there are interesting themes below the surface of “Assassin’s Creed,” particularly with regard to Cal as a prisoner who goes from one supermax unit to another. The scientists claim that modernity has no outlet for aggression, resulting in an elaborate system that pathologizes violence and contains it within a surveillance-driven prison panopticon. The Apple would let them pre-empt all of that by containing humanity in a mental prison.
“Assassin’s Creed” will be polarizing, but as an entry in Kurzel’s oeuvre, it’s fascinating for the ways that it doesn’t fit and the ways that it does. It is so singularly his film — in the style and the fascination with hubris, power and violence. It’s his mark on the studio blockbuster that makes the brilliant parts of “Assassin’s Creed” worthwhile.