We're not going to spend a lot of time discussing why Assassin's Creed, the latest in a very long line of video game franchises to be converted into bad films, failed to do the thing that everyone hoped this one, as all (OK, just some) the others hoped to do: actually be good.
If we're being honest, this is a pointless battle, because the reason that video game films have yet to find the same sort of narrative success that comic book movies are having is pretty simple and can be boiled down into two areas, both of which strongly apply here.
The first area, or rather the first reason, is interactivity. The reason people love video games is because they get to control a fantasy. They get to be the star of their own movie, a dashing, athletic, handsome man or woman who can kick everyone's ass and take everyone's names. Michael Fassbender, who plays protagonist Callum Lynch and his ancestor Aguilar de Nerha, as such, is the perfect avatar for those very fantasies. However, the problem with that lies in the fact that this is a movie, not a game, and while we can live vicariously through an actor doing those very same things, what ends up missing is the interactivity that makes up for the lack of narrative or plot.
Assassin's Creed does an excellent job of recreating how a modern video game is created. By that, I mean that what you see in the film is every bit the cut scene connective tissue that gives just enough plot to make the game play feel like a movie. Ubisoft, creator of the Assassin's Creed video game series, goes to great length to give filmgoers a very accurate experience of basically going to someone else's house and watching them play a video game for a couple hours, but just like not getting your own turn at the controls, the whole experience feels pretty empty and pointless.
The second area, or reason, happens to be a bit of a contradiction in terms to everything I just mentioned, but stick with me.
A major fatal flaw for video game adaptations is the desire to create new ground within something familiar, even if it means eschewing characters or storylines that went over really well, sacrificing the conceit of familiarity in order to leave a signature on existing IP. While each game in the Assassin's Creed series features a new Assassin, with a new story, by doing the same thing with the film, it ends up...not being the same, and that's no good.
Comic book movies improved when filmmakers stopped shying away from the source material. We're not there quite yet with video game movies, and Assassin's Creed is no different in this regard. Because we have to learn all new characters, this does not lend itself to the familiar, and as such doesn't do as well to build the sort of kinship with existing fans to explain things to new fans.
Yes, that matters. It's astonishing that filmmakers are presented with this reality over and again, and yet they still don't seem to get it.
To be fair, there are a number of flourishes, beats and even artifacts which came over from the games, including the same silly eagle that flies about as each new level begins, and even the patented "Leap of Faith" that games do with their characters. That stuff is cool, so imagine if this first film featured one of the actual protagonists from any of the games. (Michael K. Williams does play a descendant of Baptiste, a character who previously appeared in Assassin's Creed: Liberation.)
So now that we've spent two-thirds of the review breaking down how and why Assassin's Creed failed to be the Golden Child of video game adaptations, which is far longer than I originally wanted to spend, let's spend the rest of the review talking about why I ultimately don't hate this movie.
I have to believe that when the decision to give up on cracking a real story here was made, the decision to make an extremely entertaining action spectacle was probably the better path to go, and director Justin Kurzel manages not to get so far in the way of the second-unit (action unit) as to destroy some great fight choreography. A large part of why this works is the enthusiasm of Fassbender.
Without Fassbender's full participation in this film, without him throwing himself into what priggish critics will happily call the worst role of his career, Assassin's Creed wouldn't be fun, and fun is what this film is going for. It makes no apologies for wasting acting talent from Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons or Brendan Gleeson, and why should it? They got paid for classing up the joint, and Fassbender got to have all the fun kicking ass for the audience, and on that level alone, the film is immensely watchable.
The faithfulness to the look and feel of the film as compared to the game is commendable, even if many of the meaty parts were left behind. When it's all said and done, while a film like this with actors like these deserve much better material, there's more than enough hot action in Assassin's Creed not to feel robbed, but without a serious upgrade in story, a sequel might simply be a bridge too far.