How Bad Is…Assassin’s Creed (2016)?
While critics and audiences alike left this assassin movie for dead, should we give the killer another chance?
Looking back at assassin movies this week, I’ve come across several stinkers. While most films in this category tend to be niche genre flicks, there are occasionally some big budget offerings. Hoping to make a killing, most movies about hitmen wind up sleeping in a shallow grave. Add in the stigma behind movies based on video games, and Assassin’s Creed put itself in the cross-hairs to wind up a flop.
Released during the Christmas season last year, Assassin’s Creed looked initially like a lump of coal for 20th Century Fox. Critics gave the film the cold shoulder and audiences in the US mostly stayed away. Fans of the series buoyed the film’s reputation against nearly universal critical derision, and the film went on to double it’s 125 million dollar budget, mostly through foreign ticket sales. A year later, it’s hard to know that this film was struggling to survive at the time.
Assassin’s Creed (2016)
Callum Lynch has lived a troubled life after watching his father kill his mother as a child. On death row for murder, his execution is faked and he is handed over to a secretive organization in Spain. Hoping to discover the root of human violence, they use a sophisticated machine to regress certain violent individuals back through the lives of their ancestors.
Callum discovers that his ancestor was a Spanish assassin named Aguilar who was waging a brutal secret war with the Knights Templar over a mystical artifact called the Apple of Eden. As he uncovers his forebears memories through regression, he learns the techniques of the assassins. He will need them, as the Templars are very much still alive and after Callum’s memories of the Apple.
What Went Wrong?
- The DaVinci Creed. The plot of the video games is famously baroque, with multiple points of view and hundreds of hours of lore fleshing out a tale of political and religious intrigue. Operating in two timelines is enough of a tricky plot to maneuver for a movie. Adding a complicated Dan Brown-esque religious war into the mix may have been a bridge too far for Assassin’s Creed. At the end of the day, regular movie goers were probably expecting a breezy action flick instead of a byzantine thriller involving mystical macguffins and secret societies. The Templar versus Assassin stuff works well enough in the past, though it can be heavy handed when the baddies decide to give sermon after sermon about their superiority. In the present, the Templars come off as cliched conspiracy theory fodder that make the whole movie feel hokey and contrived.
- Premature Sequel Baiting. The production company behind Assassin’s Creed really must have thought they nailed their adaptation because they cap off the movie with a incredibly brazen sequel bait ending. After managing to tell a mostly coherent and action filled version of the aforementioned dizzying plot, they undo all of their efforts by leaving key elements of the story open-ended. There was some foreshadowing in the film that other memories and assassins lurk in Callum’s past, which was more than enough to justify a sequel. Instead of leaving well enough alone, they force the issue with a lazy ending that lacks any closure. Given the audience’s general disdain for this film, it felt like a player doing an end-zone dance…on the five yard line…just before getting the stuffing knocked out of them by the defense.
- Showing up to a Lightsaber Duel with a Wrist Knife. Timing is everything in Hollywood, and I can’t fathom the brass balls at Ubisoft for releasing this film in December against Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. As we saw with the incredulous ending, the production company really must have had delusions of grandeur about their whole project. Sure, Assassin’s Creed is a billion dollar franchise of video games that turns out best sellers on the regular (though less assuredly now than in their heyday.) Assassin’s Creed is a big name…but it ain’t Star Wars! Looking at the release schedule this Christmas, you can see that everyone else learned what Assassin’s Creed forgot; you do not mess with Star Wars.
What Went Right?
- Lush Historical Setting. Assassin’s Creed really comes alive during the sequences with Aguilar set during the Reconquista. The settings are beautiful and filled to bursting with detail. On scene where Aguilar has to escape through the apartments of the city and over the rooftops has such exquisite attention to detail that you feel that every tiny piece of the sequence was crafted with care to make the city come alive in its historical grandeur. The costumes, the buildings, and all the extras come together to really create an immersive and fanciful version of Spain in the 1490’s that draws you in.
- Impressive Fight Choreography. I did not expect much from this film in regards to action. The trailers mostly showed flashy moments that looked like Chinese wire-fu ballet and unbelievable parkour sequences. Watching the film, I was impressed with how meticulously the fight scenes were crafted and how varied they were. You do get tons of parkour chases through the impressive city-scapes, and several of the fights end in a climax of our hero leaping off tall buildings, but all of the brawls that tie these moments together are weighty and well done. The film mixes martial arts fights with cool weapons sequences, leading to a varied and fun experience. By the big finale (which should have been the ending, but wasn’t!) you really feel that our assassins can believably kill with any item they pick up and look confident while doing it.
- Don’t Dwell on the Present. At least somebody in charge knew which side of the bread their movie was buttered on: the historical scenes with Aguilar. Everything about the film works so well when we are in his boots kicking ass instead of stuck in a prison cell with Callum hearing drivel about the Apple of Eden and free will. The whole narrative arc of Aguilar functions so well, it should have been the whole movie. We see his induction into the Assassins, watch him as he and his companion (and eventual love interest) become the order’s only hope to stop the Templars, and we ride along as he manages to turn a nearly crushing defeat into eventual victory. It’s a fine story that has every element you’d want in an action film, and Assassin’s Creed rightly spends the lion’s share of its run time on it.
How Bad Is It?
There is a good movie in Assassin’s Creed’s DNA, and the studio almost made it. The story of Aguilar and the pivotal moment in his war against the Templars has great characters, a memorable villain, a strong love interest, and plenty of gorgeous action. When you’re in the past, this film is aces and is very enjoyable. The story of Callum can’t help but be less impressive.
Certain segments of the film set in the present work, and the whole is not exactly a train wreck. The story line where Callum is reluctantly learning from his ancestors to become a modern assassin feels pretty strong. If the movie had ditched the magic apple and all of the Dan Brown intrigue, I would have been happy with it. A story about a guy who learns to kick ass from his ass-kicking ancestor that ends with his escape from the people holding him captive would have been fun. Leave all of the wonky stuff for the sequel and just make a tight first film.
In the end, Assassin’s Creed subtracts by addition. There’s too much going on and not enough focus on the aspects of the movie, and games, that are interesting to a general audience and that could bring non-fans into the tent. It’s by no means a complete waste; several aspects of the film are a lot of fun. The horrible ending unfortunately will poison the well for this franchise, as I doubt anyone involved will be willing to come back for a sequel (Although Michael Fassbender has shown he is willing to do awful sequels before…) When Ubisoft decides to reboot this in a few years, hopefully they learn a lesson from their past life.