Quick Post: Justin Kurzel’s Assassin’s Creed

assassinsI watched Assassin’s Creed back on Christmas Eve. I’ve never played the video game, and I pretty frequently skip giant studio action blockbusters; but I’d been curious about this film ever since I first heard about it. While its impressive cast was partially to blame for my interest, director Justin Kurzel is the primary reason I was so quick to add Assassin’s Creed to my watchlist. I loved Kurzel’s dark, stylish, and sexy take on Macbeth, and I’ve been eager for another film from him since seeing it. And while Kurzel’s latest is not as good as Macbeth, there is still quite a bit of good among the bad, and he remains a director to watch closely as far as this reviewer is concerned.

I don’t love Assassin’s Creed, but for all its flaws, the film simply does not deserve the critical lashing that it’s received. Some of my reasons why are below.

Film: Assassin’s Creed
Director: Justin Kurzel
Writers: Michael Leslie, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage
Primary Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Michael Kenneth Williams, Ariane Labed, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Essie Davis, Callum Turner, Denis Menochet
US Release Date: 21 December 2016

As messy and as flawed as Assassin’s Creed is, it is far better than it’s RT score (at this moment, a 17%) would indicate. This is especially true when another 2016 action blockbuster, Marvel’s Doctor Strange, is sitting at a whopping 90%. Numbers like this would have a person believe that where Doctor Strange is a film worth watching, Assassin’s Creed is a hot mess with little redeeming qualities whatsoever. Such simply isn’t the case; in fact, the opposite would be closer to the truth.

I don’t feel great about using Doctor Strange as a scapegoat, but allow me to do so anyway (!!!). The film has received positive review after positive review, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s one of the most boring studio films of the year. There are no fleshed-out characters in Doctor Strange. The plot is hollow and predictable. Viewers are given no reason to care about anyone or anything that happens. The villain is almost nonexistant (and Mads Mikkelsen is completely wasted). The writing isn’t great. The film is safe and features a lot of expensive CGI, but there is nothing new, compelling, or especially entertaining about it. And yet, it gets a pass. It’s fine. It takes no risks, and apparently, that is enough as long as Disney/Marvel and Benedict Cumberbatch are all involved.

Assassin’s Creed tries to do much more than Doctor Strange; and though Kurzel does not always exceed, he deserves credit for his efforts all the same. Where Doctor Strange sticks to a prescribed formula, Assassin’s Creed occassionally attempts to break the mold (if only by degrees). Kurzel’s film has more balls than any Marvel film I’ve seen, even if it isn’t a “good” movie. The fact that it has such a low RT score is not justified and obscures the fact that it’s considerably more entertaining, artful, and interesting than Doctor Strange (or a number of other, more “successful” blockbusters). Doctor Strange is an example of all that is wrong with Marvel’s vanilla-as-hell cash-cows; Assassin’s Creed is an example of some of what is wrong with bloated blockbusters and video game movies, but it’s also an attempt to be something more.

The film tries to weave a story of the past into one of the present and future. The film tries to build and entire world while side-stepping the dullness-filled swamp that most origin stories fall into. The film never uses romance as a crutch, and it tries to merge the world of cinema with the narrative-unfriendly world of video games. The film combines history and fantasy and asks large, philosophical questions. The film also has no problem embracing moral gray areas. None of this is especially ground-breaking, but none of it is easy to pull off either.

As bad as it’s script often is, Assassin’s Creed pulls viewers into its universe and invites them to make sense of the fantasy. Though it’s visuals aren’t as distinct or as enveloping as those in Kurzel’s MacbethAssassin’s Creed does present a number of visually strong moments, and the film has enough of its own style to standout from the pack. The fight scenes and action sequences are (mostly) quite good, and the costumes distinct and detailed enough to leave an impression. The film also boasts an ominous, engrossing score that adds energy and depth whatever it touches. (In fact, Jed Kurzel’s compositions may just be my favorite of the year other than those Mica Levi did for Jackie). Together, the visuals and strong score both provide a strong foundation for the rest of the film, so that even when its writing falters terribly, there’s still something there to keep viewers tethered. Assassin’s Creed is imperfect, but it also bold enough and textured enough that it’s never boring.
Order Jed Kurzel’s score for Assassin’s Creed.

As much as I appreciate Justin and Jed Kurzel, and as much as I believe that Assassin’s Creed is a far more interesting than a number of films in same category, I’d be remiss not to be more specific about some the movie’s flaws. For instance, though the film does boast a slick, stylish, and well-composed look, not all of its visuals are successful. Every so often, Kurzel inserts a shot that screams “THIS IS BASED ON A VIDEO GAME!”; such shots—which often place the viewer in a first-person POV—are disorienting and don’t add anything of value. Whether such moments are meant to pay homage to the film’s heritage or whether they are simply an attempt to do things differently doesn’t change the fact that they don’t really “work.”

Assassin’s Creed also lacks nuanced, lively performances, although the overt coldness of the entire work makes this somewhat forgivable. That said, it is a shame to see such talented actors as  Brendan Gleeson, Marion Cotillard, Michael Fassbender, and Essie Davies under-utilized so. And while the lack of well-developed characters in Assassin’s Creed can probably be tied to it’s video-game roots, even just a dash of human emotion could have helped the film a great deal.

Still, the largest, most glaring flaw plaguing Assassin’s Creed is it’s script. While the first two thirds of the film are paced pretty well, the last section is so rushed, that it’s sure to leave viewers more than a little off-kilter. The film’s plot is also rather muddy, and those looking for precise explanations and clear character-motivations will be left terribly wanting. Meanwhile, the ending is so poorly executed, that even the most astute audience members will be left scratching their heads. At the same time, many of the characters lack anything that might be called “personality” (although, one wonders if such a thing even exists in the world the film inhabits).

Assassin’s Creed is a teeming with creative missteps and errors in judgement, but it also has enough audacity and style to very nearly make up for its flaws. As imperfect as Kurzel’s film is, it remains entertaining, and it’s far more interesting than a number of its peers. Assassin’s Creed may not be inherently “better” than a film like Doctor Strange, but it’s not much worse either.

Until Next Time
Happy New Year!

Here’s to hoping I watch and write more in 2017 somehow.

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