It used to be that when a highly touted actor — a prestigious actor, a thespian — agreed to star in a piece of schlock, he might be grateful for the work, but the job was still undertaken with a pinch of shame. When Laurence Olivier played a leering rapacious soap-opera gloss on Henry Ford in Harold Robbins’ “The Betsy” (1978), or when Michael Caine gallivanted around the globe to star in paycheck movies from “Blame It On Rio” to “Jaws: The Revenge,” no one was fooling anybody.
How times have changed. “Assassin’s Creed,” in which Michael Fassbender plays some sort of leaping, fighting, time-tripping — but still moody and sullen — bare-chested historic warrior dude, is a mediocre video-game movie that has branded itself in a most revealing way. The film is coming off 20 years of soullessly trashy and forgettable video-game spinoffs (the “Mortal Kombat” and “Streetfighter” films, “Max Payne” and “BloodRayne,” the “Lara Croft” series, this year’s “Warcraft”). But “Assassin’s Creed” isn’t fighting the junkiness of that pedigree — it’s using it to prop up its own pretensions. The hook the producers are selling is, “Here, at long last, is a video-game movie that’s a cut above the others.”
Shot in somber sci-fi Renaissance tones, “Assassin’s Creed” has a “Masterpiece Theatre” cast that’s ten times classier than it needs, it cost more than $150 million to make, and it’s deeply self-serious about its long-ago-and-far-away setting: 15th-century Spain during the Inquisition, which means a lot of solemn religious dogma and burning at the stake. Fassbender takes on the role of Callum Lynch, a modern-day criminal saved from execution and forced to enter the memories of an Inquisition-era Assassin, as if he were playing Neo from “The Matrix” crossed with Hamlet. His every tragic gaze and saturnine grimace tells the audience that this isn’t just some glorified dystopian joystick ride — it’s real drama! Except that it isn’t. In “Assassin’s Creed,” Michael Fassbender is like the ultimate special effect. Just by showing up, he confers respectability on two hours of semi-coherent overly art-directed video-game sludge.
Callum has been saved from death by Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), a mysterious CEO so lost in time that he still wears a black turtleneck, and his daughter, Sophia (Marion Cotillard), who is the lead scientist at Rikkin’s company, Abstergo Industries. It’s Sophia who oversees an experiment that’s the film’s mystical knockoff of virtual reality: Callum gets strapped into an airborne harness that looks like a dental X-ray machine from hell, with a monitor implanted in the back of his neck, and the apparatus zaps him back through time to channel the memories of Aguilar de Nerha, the Assassin who is his ancestor. Callum’s mission is to find the hidden location of the Apple of Eden (“The seed of mankind’s first disobedience”), which is somehow connected to the words of Christopher Columbus.
It’s not clear why any of this is happening, but to say that “Assassin’s Creed” doesn’t make a lot of sense would be both accurate and beside the point. The film’s plot is a shambles, yet everything in it links back, with loopy exactitude, to the past — like the suspicion that Callum’s father, Joseph (Brendan Gleeson), killed his mother, though at the behest of forces greater than himself. Or the fact that Abstergo Industries is a front for the Knights Templar, the order of Christian fighters who first emerged during the Crusades. Are we supposed to read some sort of higher statement into the fact that they’re the movie’s bad guys?
I won’t attempt to parse the fetishistic levels of “meaning” woven into the “Assassin’s Creed” video games, but in the movie the material is derivative in the extreme. Basically, we’re watching “The Matrix” and “The Da Vinci Code” get Cuisinarted into weaponized action sequences that look like they came off of old heavy-metal album covers. There’s an aura of cult doom hanging over the action, but that just makes everything on-screen feel glumly ritualized and abstracted. The Knights Templar, man! How sinister-theological-cool. It’s all a way of creating “mystery” where there is none.
A movie like “Assassin’s Creed” doesn’t just revolve around dueling cults (the Knights Templar v. the Assassins). The film is all about the cultish complexity of its cosmology; it treats its audience of video-game connoisseurs as a ready-made cult of fans eager to obsess over the film’s visual expansion of the games’ design. It’s seriously doubtful that the movie will find enough of those fans in the U.S. to qualify as a domestic success. Yet that may not matter: In the suspended vagueness of its drama, “Assassin’s Creed” speaks the kinetic aesthetic language of the global market. As directed by Justin Kurzel, the film looks like a period painting recreated through pixels of murk; it suggests a Tony Scott movie lit by Vermeer. And it includes one spectacular money-shot image: men diving off of tall buildings, like superheroes with a touch of suicidal grandeur.
Yet the visual effects are scattered and arbitrary, and the actors are mostly reduced to props. Cotillard, punked-out in a rather Teutonic way (she looks like something out of “Metropolis”), makes her presence felt, and Irons delivers a couple of droll lines that provide the film with its only dabs of humor. But Fassbender, despite his traumatic exertions, begins to disappear inside the tightly composed frames. The movie, in its grab-bag philosophical way, makes a big deal out of the purported last words of the 11th-century Persian missionary Hassan-i Sabbah (which were then popularized by William S. Burroughs): “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” In “Assassin’s Creed,” anything goes, nothing takes hold.