Skip to main content

It’s 2016. No one cares about freedom.

Assassin’s Creed
(2016)

(SPOILERS) I didn’t dislike Assassin’s Creed. It engaged me, the action worked, by and large, even if director Justin Kurzel is obsessed with high shutter speeds like it’s 1999, and it’s a damn sight better at doing what it’s doing than the empty-headed Macbeth he and Michael Fassbender collaborated on prior to this. I’m just not sure what it is that it’s doing. Or if it knows either.


I am not, nor have I ever been, a player of the video game(s) on which the movie is based, so I have no investment in its accuracy or departures from the source material, as the case may be. I can, however, point to baggage that doesn’t really work cinematically. While our Fass’s 2016 “incarnation” Cal Lynch’s encounters with a spectre of his 15th century forbear Aguilar are reasonably effective, the intercutting of action sequences in Inquisition-era Spain with Cal going through likewise motions while attached to a futuristic machine/articulated arm (the Animus) mostly don’t, succeeding mainly in detracting from the pacing of the given scene.


That said, I have no particular preference regarding the past/future elements. Assassin’s Creed is saddled with a premise that may serve well enough for a game, where it’s the action that matters, but it instantly feels leaden and clunky translated to the movies. Having Cal physically jumping around might – in the eyes of the makers – provide a visual flourish, distinguishing it from someone lying on a gurney, Matrix-style, while their mind goes a-wandering, but it’s a bit silly, no matter how seriously it’s taken (and it’s taken very seriously).


Added to which, the MacGuffin of finding the Apple of Eden is desperately sub-Dan Brown, which is saying something. Then there’s the convenience with which Cal jumps into Aguilar in linear fashion each time, at the very point he/the nefarious Abstergo Foundation needs to learn or find the next something on the trail of the Apple; it makes the plot progression all too straightforward and effortless. Where’s the challenge? And that’s not even mentioning the crudely-fashioned strand of the Templars’ plan to eliminate violence from the world and/or free will, the kind of nebulous notion that invites ridicule even before Marion Cotillard’s Sophia compares it to Oppenheimer’s achievements.


The idea of an ancestral line informing one’s existence feels like it’s picking up the thread of disguised reincarnation Highlander previously flirted with, just here wrapped in the more palatable finery of pseudo-science. So, like Cloud Atlas, we have a number of the actors playing dual counterparts, the only problem being there’s so little definition to them that they resoundingly fail to distinguish themselves. Ironically, it’s probably Denis Ménochet’s fearsome but insightful heavy who makes the most of his lot, as both the Abstergo head of security and a Templar goon.


I found the picture’s rather eccentric delineations of good guys and bad guys on the distracting side, since I was left trying to work out why those choices were made while furnished with precious little detail to back them up. The Knights Templar appear to be a free-reigning force during the Spanish Inquisition, despite having been (officially) wiped out almost two centuries earlier. And they’re up against the Hashshashins, also enduring way past their peak. The Templars here effectively represent the Illuminati (of course, some conspiracists have actually intertwined the two), imposing controls, distractions and constraints on humanity but who, unable to dissuade the global population from nasty, messy violence, wish to utilise the Apple to remove free will from the equation (as such, they’re at least portrayed as having some level of “noble” motivation, rather than simply power for power’s sake, which isn’t very illuminati of them).


The Assassins occupy the polar extreme, citing a Crowley-esque “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted” as their mantra and preserving some less-than-wholly-welded concepts of anarchy and ordered preservation of the status quo (so no using dodgy Apples, then), in order to nurture ideas and the growth of individuality. And, one can only know that one knows nothing. Perhaps if the games’ homo sapiens divinus (the dreaded ancient astronauts) had been incorporated, it might have felt like there was more meat on the bones of these barely-sketched opposing factions. It might also have yielded an answer as to why the Apple of Eden resembles a boule, although I doubt that somewhat (the old chestnut of having it located in an ancient tomb is further evidence of how under-cooked this is).


I’m not sure if the idea that the bad guys are trying to wipe out violence from humanity is intended as meta-commentary on gaming culture’s main virtual activity, but since nothing is really made of it, I’m dubious. As for the set-tos in the movie, Kurzel ensures there’s some proficient action choreography, and even occasionally makes sequences dramatically stirring (when he isn’t over-cutting and overworking his shutter), helped by his brother’s pulsing score, despite singularly failing to invest us in his paper-thin characters.  The various leaps of faith and exercises in medieval parkour are impressive and there’s more than enough tangible action to forgive the evidently virtual cityscapes (and eagles!)


The Fass gives a decent showing in his dual roles, albeit for no discernible thespian and disappointing box office reward, such that his quest to start his own franchise now appears to rest on playing Harry Hole in The Snowman. Marion Cotillard is fine (many have remarked on her erratic accent, but it didn’t disconcert especially me), Jeremy Irons plays a villain in pay cheque mode (he was much more engagingly sociopathic in High Rise, as rocky as that film was), while the likes of Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling and Michael Kenneth Williams (who smiles occasionally, but that’s it as far as humour in this dour affair is concerned) are duly professional. Ariane Labed sports some stylish face paint and she and Fass rock some snazzy 1492 designer hoodies.


The third act, such as the structure goes, is a bit of a flounder, and even features the Fass leaping upwards through a skylight à la Warren Beatty in Dick Tracy. So Kurzel is borrowing from the best… I was expecting the movie to end with the Apple stolen, cuing up the sequel. So, on the one hand, they commendably offered a degree of closure. On the other, there were another ten minutes added to the running time.


Assassin’s Creed doesn’t deserve the opprobrium heaped on it, but at the same time the negative reaction is entirely understandable. It never makes the effort to inform its audience why they should care about the proceedings or anyone in them (Kurzel said he didn’t want to show the Assassins as heroes and Templars as villains, since both ideologies could go to extremes, but he fails to achieve even that, creating murk of motivation at best). It’s all presented as a fait accompli, which you just can’t do if you’re spending $125m on a movie. Or are Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. So why did I kind of like it, I hear you ask? Damned if I know.


Anyway, it’s fairly clear by now that there won’t be an Assassin’s Creed 2 and that the prospects for a whole franchise are doomed (although, I’ve seen it said that UbiSoft took most of the hit, so that they could follow it up, irrespective of performance – that remains to be seen). Welcome to the world of video game adaptations that aren’t Resident Evil.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Two hundred thousand pounds, for this outstanding example of British pulchritude and learning.

The Avengers 4.18: The Girl From Auntie
I’ve mentioned that a few of these episodes have changed in my appreciation since I last watched the series, and The Girl from Auntie constitutes a very pronounced uptick. Indeed, I don’t know how I failed to rate highly the estimable Liz Fraser filling in for Diana Rigg – mostly absent, on holiday –for the proceedings (taking a not dissimilar amateur impostor-cum-sidekick role to Fenella Fielding in the earlier The Charmers). I could watch Fraser all day, and it’s only a shame this was her single appearance in the show.

By Jove, the natives are restless tonight.

The Avengers 4.17: Small Game for Big Hunters
I wonder if Death at Bargain Prices’ camping scene, suggestive of an exotic clime but based in a department store, was an inspiration for Small Game For Big Hunters’ more protracted excursion to the African country of Kalaya… in Hertfordshire. Gerry O’Hara, in his second of two episodes for the show again delivers on the atmosphere, making the most of Philip Levene’s teleplay.

Romulan ale should be illegal.

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
(SPOILERS) Out of the ST:NG movies, Star Trek: Nemesis seems to provoke the most outrage among fans, the reasons mostly appearing to boil down to continuity and character work. In the case of the former, while I can appreciate the beef, I’m not enough of an aficionado to get too worked up. In the case of the latter, well, the less of the strained inter-relationships between this bunch that make it to the screen, the better (director Stuart Baird reportedly cut more than fifty minutes from the picture, most of it relating to underscoring the crew, leading to a quip by Stewart that while an Actor’s Cut would include the excised footage, a Director’s one would probably be even shorter). Even being largely unswayed by such concerns, though, Nemesis isn’t very good. It wants to hit the same kind of dramatic high notes as The Wrath of Khan (naturally, it’s always bloody Khan) but repeatedly drifts into an out-of-tune dirge.

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

Cally. Help us, Cally. Help Auron.

Blake's 7 3.7: Children of Auron

Roger Parkes goes a considerable way towards redeeming himself for the slop that was Voice from the Past with his second script for the series, and newcomer Andrew Morgan shows promise as a director that never really fulfilled itself in his work on Doctor Who (but was evident in Knights of God, the 1987 TV series featuring Gareth Thomas).

I think we’ve returned to Eden. Surely this is how the World once was in the beginning of time.

1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)
Ridley Scott’s first historical epic (The Duellists was his first historical, and his first feature, but hardly an epic) is also one of his least remembered films. It bombed at the box office (as did the year’s other attempted cash-ins on the discovery of America, including Superman: The Movie producers the Salkinds’ Christopher Columbus: The Discovery) and met with a less than rapturous response from critics. Such shunning is undeserved, as 1492: Conquest of Paradise is a richer and more thought-provoking experience than both the avowedly lowbrow Gladiator and the re-evaluated-but-still-so-so director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven. It may stand guilty of presenting an overly sympathetic portrait of Columbus, but it isn’t shy about pressing a critical stance on his legacy.

Sanchez: The truth is, that he now presides over a state of chaos, of degradation, and of madness. From the beginning, Columbus proved himself completely incapable of ruling these islands…