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Can ‘Assassin’s Creed’ break the game-to-movie curse?

Cloak and dagger: Michael Fassbender gets physical in Assassin’s Creed.

Assassin’s Creed, released by 20th Century Fox, takes off from the hugely popular video game series by Unisoft. How huge is it? At the preview I attended, grown men were taking time away from their video game controls to line up to see the action thriller starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard.

It helps to take the movie as seriously as it takes itself. Though this is, admittedly, difficult at times. As shown in the opening, Fassbender is a man out of time: we see him in unshaven form, donning an assassin’s cloak somewhere in Spain in the 15th century. After some somber, moody moments, it becomes clear he is there to release some furious martial arts and killing skills, in order to retrieve… something. What that is becomes clear a later.

Jump forward in time, and Fassbender is a young boy — Callum Lynch — in 1980s Texas, seeing something terrible go down in his home. He spends the following decades on the run, getting into trouble with the law, until he is sentenced to lethal injection — all the while cursing his father (Brendan Gleeson) for an act of family violence he can never forgive.

This is a pretty good setup for what amounts to a series of game rounds: Callum, it turns out, has been rescued from lethal injection and is participating against his will in The Animus Project: a state-sponsored experiment to cure mankind of violence. Father scientist Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) and daughter Sophia (Cotillard) tend to a prison full of convicted murderers who are test subjects in a bid to find the genetic seed of violence in man. The subjects are strapped to a device (not unlike one of those arcade games with a claw to snatch prizes) that enables them to burrow down into their buried genetic memories — and come out fighting.

Visually, Justin Kurzel’s dystopic future is grim and dreary, but at least striking in its testing room, where Callum is hooked up and plunged mentally into the 15th century. You might even say Kurzel is “visionary,” though that adjective is getting thrown around way too much in movies these days. “From visionary director ___” gets itself slapped onto every movie trailer with even a slightly different look. It’s not even usually an original look, just a “look.” Call it the Used Future Science Fiction Look. And isn’t every director, by definition, “visionary,” unless they’re blind like Woody Allen’s character in Hollywood Ending?

Marion Cotillard introduces Fassbender to The Animus Project.

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But I digress. How close is Assassin’s Creed the movie to Assassin’s Creed the video game? Remarkably similar, it turns out. You are that guy in cloaked hood with archer’s kit, swords and various killing devices, navigating a Spanish villa in “free roam mode,” using your Parkour skills to scale walls and rooftops, leaping off of tall buildings into azure waters and swimming like an otter. There’s that subtle but persistent drumbeat in the background to keep your adrenaline going during the lead-up to battle. The movie echoes the game, adding a few layers of grime in the process. Not to mention a few layers of pretentiousness.

What’s the idea behind all of this? It has something to do with Hassan i-Sabbah, the high priest of assassins in Vladimir Bartol’s 1938 novel Alamut, whose creed (“Nothing is true, everything is permitted”) has been adopted by writers as diverse as William Burroughs and, by extension, Aleister Crowley. I’m willing to bet only a handful of Assassin’s Creed players actually read the book, but they sure like reciting that line: even prior to the preview screening, kids in assassin gear were coaxed into reciting it onstage to win giveaway prizes.

Though it may strike some as nihilistic, the creed helps us to understand, a little bit, the motivation for the nonstop video violence of the movie. The assassins are fighting against a group called the Templar Order which has also existed for centuries. Their goal is not to eradicate violence in some politically correct, bleeding heart liberal kind of way — they just want to get rid of man’s free will, so that we can be under state control. So, dystopia, yada-yada-yada.

The action scenes in Assassin’s Creed are good enough, seeing the world as we do through Fassbender’s eyes, though the whole “go under/fight/wake up/reset” thing reminds us of other, more interesting premises that have come before, such as The Matrix, Inception, The Day After Tomorrow, etc. It will probably appeal to the game fanatics the most, though they may also rebel at the lack of details or crucial variations from the video series. The movie resolves itself into a simple quest that leads to a switcheroo that leads to a setup for a sequel. Cotillard is surprisingly lifeless here, playing a doll-like daughter who speaks in a monotone. Definitely a far cry from her last outing in Allied with Brad Pitt. Fassbender, for his part, seems to be taking the whole thing very seriously, buffing up for the role, showing off some martial arts training. You’d think, at this point in his career, he wouldn’t be craving to get locked into yet another Hollywood action franchise, but who knows? He could be a rabid Assassin’s Creed gamer himself.

Ultimately, the payoff of Assassin’s Creed is not something that will hook non-game fans, who have seen enough dystopic sci-fi movies to know every twist that’s coming and every danger that’s lurking behind every well-grimed castle corner and doorway. We’ve been here before, or it certainly feels like we have, many, many times in the past. Perhaps it’s our genetic memory kicking in.

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