If there’s anything worse than dumb schlock, it’s pretentious schlock. “Assassin’s Creed,” based on an apparently popular series of video games, purports to say something about the importance of free will against enforced conformity—as “A Clockwork Orange” so memorably did. But like so many pop culture pieces of similar type—“V for Vendetta” is a perfect example—it dresses up the message in an orgy of empty action, violence and distinctly unspecial visual effects. The symbol of freedom it repeatedly references is a soaring eagle, but the movie itself is a dead duck.
The picture immediately raises the question: what possessed a fine actor like Michael Fassbender to agree not only to star in it but to serve as one of its producers? Perhaps his reason had to do with his bank account and dreams of a lucrative franchise, but more likely it was simply a matter of friendship. Director Justin Kurzel had cast him—along with Marion Cotillard, who also co-stars with Fassbender here—in last year’s well-received “Macbeth,” and both might have felt a debt to him. If so, the result proves once again that in making career choices, friendship should have its limits.
In any event, Fassbender plays Callum Lynch, a death-row inmate who is “reborn” immediately after his execution in the laboratory of the Abstergo Corporation headed by Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) and his daughter Sophia (Cotillard). Callum, it is soon revealed, is a descendant of a fifteenth-century Spaniard named Aguilar de Nerha, who was a member of a group called the Assassins, which had for centuries been the sworn opponents of the Knights Templar, representing freedom of will over the Templars’ ideal of bringing peace to the world through total order. The Templar program at the time is embodied in the Spanish Inquisition and its leader Torquemada (Javier Gutierrez), and what they are seeking is an orb called the Apple of Eden, representing man’s fall from grace, which contains the DNA of disobedience that can be used to control, or more properly eliminate, man’s impetus to violence.
In 1492, it’s revealed, the Apple is in the possession of the Sultan of Granada, the last Moslem enclave in the Iberian peninsula, and Torquemada’s men have captured his son to use as a pawn to force his father to turn the artifact over to them. Aguilar springs into action along with his confederate Maria (Ariane Labed) to prevent the exchange.
So what has contemporary Callum to do with all this? Well, it seems that by connecting him to a massive device called the Animus, Sophia can merge him with Aguilar, and get him to re-enact his ancestor’s actions, down to the revelation of where the long-dead Assassin hid the Apple five centuries ago. The question is whether Callum will fall in with this scheme or overcome his hatred of his father (Brendan Gleeeson), an Assassin who killed his wife, and join the other Assassins imprisoned at Abstergo to save human freedom yet again.
The goofiness of all this should be apparent, even before the last-minute addition of a plot element involving the tomb of Christopher Columbus that takes the script, credited—if that’s the appropriate word—to no fewer than three writers, deep into Dan Brown territory. But from the filmmakers’ perspective all that’s important is that the oddball narrative allows for the insertion of prolonged action sequences—chases, martial-arts fights, swordplay, and leaps from astronomical heights—that are supposed to be exciting but fall flat, partially because they’re all shot in the drab tones characteristic of Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography but also because they’re constantly intercut by editor Christopher Tellesfsen with modern-day inserts of Callum replaying Aguilar’s moves while in the Animus’ metal tentacles. Even a big scene set at a fiery auto-de-fe that doesn’t go quite as Torquemada expected generates no sparks of excitement.
The cast aren’t aided by the humorlessness of the screenplay, which treats the hokum with a degree of seriousness that makes it all the more ludicrous. Fassbender is a dour, dull hero in both temporal spheres, while Cotillard and Irons are boringly impassive throughout. Nobody else fares well either, especially Charlotte Rampling, another distinguished actor, who pops up briefly as the Templars’ head modern honcho. Throughout Kurzel treats the ridiculous material with a dogged earnestness he didn’t feel compelled to lavish on his Shakespeare, and whatever grandeur might have existed in Andy Nicholson’s production design or Sammy Sheldon Differ’s costumes is pretty much lost in the images, which are murky even in 2D format (one can only imagine they’ll be even darker and more impenetrable in 3D). Jed Kurzel’s score is blowsy and bombastic.
What encourages studios to think that period adventure movies are the perfect Christmas releases, anyway? Universal bombed a few years back with “47 Ronin,” and now Fox is poised to do likewise with this silly misfire. Maybe the suits believe that “Assassin’s Creed” might benefit from overflow audiences from sold-out showings of “Rogue One.” You can almost hear them muttering: Help it, Obi-wan, you’re its only hope.