When it was announced in 2014 that Australian director Justin Kurzel was to direct an adaptation of Ubisoft’s thrilling videogame that married real history with fantasy, it suddenly became a very exciting prospect. His debut feature, Snowtown, which told the true story of the bodies-in-barrels murders was stomach churningly good. His second film was a visceral, visually daring and haunting adaption of Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard who also feature as the two leads in Assassin’s Creed.
The decision for Kurzel to direct this film made sense. His knack for knockout violence and conjuring an atmosphere of menace were apparent, and he brings a nightmarish dread and startling beauty to the action sequences set in 1492 at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. However, the framing story set in the modern day suffers from an over-egged Dan Brown style conspiracy narrative that doesn’t allow room for the more interesting aspects of the film to flourish.
A brand new character called Cal Lynch (Michael Fassbender) leads the viewer through the modern day. We first meet him in 1986 as a young boy doing dazzling BMX bike tricks in the dusty bowl of Baja, California. Kurzel neatly points to the safety net that is bestowed upon Cal exposing the artifice that he will experience in the Animus regression machine in the future and his unconscious training for the all-important leap of faith.
As Cal makes his way home on his bike stunning aerial shots of the landscape adorn the screen, but what he witnesses when he arrives there is brutal and disturbing. His mother Mary (Essie Davis) is sat upright at the kitchen table with droplets of blood delicately dangling from a necklace. She has shockingly been slain by her husband Joseph, and that image sticks with Cal.
The fine particles of this event are suggestively lit by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (True Detective and Top Of The Lake) to convey the grimy film of damage which coats Cal for the rest of his life. We meet Cal 30 years later on Death Row awaiting lethal injection, but he is secretly taken to an Abstergo facility, which acts as a front for the Knights Templar, who the assassins have been at war with for hundreds of years. It’s a real shame that this level of psychological enquiry regarding memory and PTSD is not further investigated, with instead a cringe-inducing and tacky sequence involving Fassbender singing Patsy Cline’s Crazy opted for to tackle his anguish. It’s painful to watch and is an indicator of the lack of nuance that dominates the latter half of the film.
The modern day setting takes a steep tumble downhill with Jeremy Irons playing a one note villain as the head of evil corporation Abstergo. He’s also father to inquisitive scientist Sofia (Marion Cotillard). Sofia leads the trials on Cal, placing him in the Animus to regress and become his ancestor Aguilar so she can locate the Apple of Eden which holds the key to man’s free will. Her motivations to eradicate violence provide an intriguing line of philosophical discussion, but this is never satisfactorily explored.
The contrast in energy levels between the two time periods proves to be a draining experience, with clunky one-liners severely clashing up against the excitement and fast paced momentum of the ambitious and exhilarating roof top parkour sequences of the past. The stealth and style of the assassins of 1492 in comparison to the charging brigade in 2016 who drop what are supposed to be subtle clues like bombs sadly do not elegantly fuse together.