The assassins of Assassin’s Creed have an assassin's creed that they recite repeatedly in Assassin’s Creed. (If that mere fact alone makes you smile, you’re in for a treat.) This creed involves phrases like “nothing is true” and “everything is permitted” (the assassins are the good guys in this movie, by the way) and concludes with the declaration “We operate in the darkness to preserve the light.”

Boy, do they ever.

One of the niftier tricks director Justin Kurzel pulls in his endearingly bizarre adaptation of the popular Assassin’s Creed video game series is the way he keeps his assassin characters perpetually cloaked in shadow. They can be standing in the middle of a town square in broad daylight and they still look like inky wraiths slinking and swooping through the air. Kurtzel’s taste for obscurity might be a turnoff to viewers looking for simple escapism — on that level, Assassin’s Creed is almost a total failure — but adventurous audiences looking for something that breaks the rules of $100 million blockbusters will find a refreshing (if also bewildering) change of pace.

Much of that bewilderment comes directly from the video game source material, which is marked by highly entertaining gameplay couched in laughable stories that blend science-fiction, history, swordplay, and jumping off of really tall buildings into one hilariously silly mythology. Most of the Assassin’s Creed games are set in the past, and follow the adventures of various members of the “Assassins” as they do battle in different time periods (the Crusades, the Renaissance, the American Revolution) with the Templars. But all of these scenes are supposedly “memories” experienced by the games’ main characters, who live in our present. (In the fictional universe of Assassin’s Creed, people can relive their ancestor’s “genetic memories” through a device called “the Animus.”)

It’s sort of a interesting idea, but it never really made sense in the context of the games, where it can be tough to suspend the disbelief that you’re “reliving a memory” while you die 10 straight times trying to climb a particularly treacherous bell tower, or you waste two hours on some random side quest finding flowers for Charles Darwin. (That’s a real part of one of the games, by the way.) It’s kind of unfathomable that Kurzel adapted this premise faithfully, but he leans in to the goofiness, even littering his establishing shots with soaring eagles which the assassins claim watch over the future. (Uh huh, okay sure.) In some ways, he uses this stuff more effectively onscreen than any of the games did. The Animus, which lets people witness the past, makes more sense in the passive medium of cinema that in an interactive one like video games. In Kurzel’s hands it becomes a device with which to explore the nature of glossy Hollywood escapism.

Assassin's Creed
20th Century Fox

The man who uses the Animus to escape from his life in the Assassin’s Creed movie is named Callum Lynch, played by Michael Fassbender. A convicted murderer with a tragic past, Lynch gets one of the better character introductions in recent memory: He’s put to death via lethal injection. But Lynch doesn’t die; instead he wakes in a prison facility run by scientist Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard), who just so happens to be the creator of the Animus. She claims Lynch is “living proof of the link between heredity and crime,” which is not a very nice thing to say to a man you just killed, and uses him to access the memories of Aguilar de Nerha (also played by Fassbender), an Assassin who lived during the Spanish Inquisition and was the last man in history known to possess the “Apple of Eden,” a magic device which Rikkin insists can be used to cure the “disease of violence.” (Don’t ask me to explain how; I don’t know, and I’m pretty sure the movie doesn’t either.)

Jeremy Irons plays Cotillard’s father, the CEO of some Templar front corporation; he reports to Charlotte Rampling, a Templar everyone calls “Your Excellency,” and they talk a lot about the eternal struggle between the Assassins and the Templars as if this is some grand ideological battle for the fate of the world. In practice, neither of these groups seems all that interested in anything but killing or enslaving the other. They’re basically just the Hatfields and McCoys with magic memory projector machines and cool pointy gauntlets; it’s best to focus one’s attention elsewhere, mostly on the movie’s claustrophobic mood of constant surveillance and justified paranoia, with handsome cinematography by Adam Arkapaw.

The visuals in the big action scenes range from aggressively stylized to artfully incoherent. Again, if you’re looking for cheap thrills, this movie provides almost none; there are several chase scenes, but choppy editing turns a lot of them into abstractions. At times, the vibe is closer to an arthouse genre deconstruction like Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control than a popcorn picture like Warcraft or Prince of Persia. Fassbender and Cotillard don’t get much to work with in terms of character arcs (and the inscrutable final sequence lets them both down), but they look great in Sammy Sheldon Differ’s costumes and Andy Nicholson’s sets. (The best performance might be Michael K. Williams as Moussa, another inmate held at Cotillard’s prison. He seems to know what’s going on, and enjoys every second of not letting us in on the secret.)

Most movies of Assassin’s Creed’s size look, sound, and flow exactly the same way. This one does not. It blends past and present into a nightmarish puzzle that can’t be solved, and features long stretches where all the dialogue is in Spanish with English subtitles. Assassin’s Creed makes you actively work for its pleasures, and it’s heartening to see a film of this scale that’s strange and ambitious and doesn’t spoon-feed viewers every little detail. If most Hollywood blockbusters are Kraft Singles — familiar, mildly satisfying, vaguely artificial, a little bit boring — Assassin’s Creed is like Kraft’s attempt to replicate the weird stinky French cheese you try at a party that you’re unsure you like but find yourself going back to over and over again until you’ve eaten the whole block. Maybe they don’t entirely succeed, but you appreciate the effort.


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