Assassin's Creed is a weird little critter. On the outside, it's a robust, well-made, action-rich $125 million blockbuster featuring a grand array of stars, including Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, and Charlotte Rampling.
But look under the hood, and you'll realize that this video-game-inspired behemoth is powered by the cheesy heart of a pea-brained, C-list cable movie.
Even weirder, I liked it.
Yes, it has a laughable premise, an incoherent mythology, a totally confusing story line, and some of the most embarrassing one-liners in recent history. ("Your blood is not your own!" "We must control free will!") But it also has great momentum, good set pieces, and so much frothy nihilism it's just plain fun.
Based on an action-adventure video-game line from Ubisoft, Assassin's Creed delivers on a promise so faithlessly made by a slew of comic-book films, from Tim Burton's Batman in 1989 to Deadpool this year. And that's the promise to create a truly dark, truly adult comic-book-movie experience.
Featuring some seriously dazzling hand-to-hand combat, Assassin's Creed has an unremittingly dark heart. The story revolves around a centuries-long conflict between two cruel, violent, and bloodthirsty secret societies: the Knights Templar and the Assassins.
Their conflict isn't about territory or wealth or prestige. Oh, no -- they fight over the fate of human free will itself!
Led by a millionaire scientist (Irons) and his United Nations scientist daughter (Cotillard), the Knights Templar, who once took their orders from the Vatican, want to eradicate free will, which they believe to be the root of all problems going back to Adam.
Fassbender is in the other camp. A line of professional killers and saboteurs who trace their lineage to the 11th-century Muslim sage and military leader Hassan-i Sabbah, the Assassins are way more cool. They wear awesome, flowy martial arts outfits, and they dig free will.
You get the gist: The Knights Templar are uptight and paternalistic and opposed to civil liberties. The Assassins are feminists, civil libertarians, and anarchists who live by the creed "Nothing is true; all is permitted."
Assassin's Creed isn't exactly a political film. It doesn't have enough substance to refer to anything outside its own frame, save the possibility that it'll spawn a franchise.
But it does poke a rude finger into the current discourse about terrorism. The good guys here are not religious, but they draw their ancestry from the Muslim side of the ideological divide, and the villains are the ones backed by the Vatican, the United Nations, and America.
Is it mere posturing? Is there anything behind that rude finger? Any real thought? I'm not sure.
Assassin's Creed is helmed by Justin Kurzel, who directed Fassbender and Cotillard last year in his critically acclaimed film version of Macbeth.
The movie follows two parallel story lines that eventually bleed into each other. In the first, the two sides have a very bloody showdown in 1492 in Spain during which Assassin leader Aguilar de Nerha (Fassbender) manages to hide a magical object that can totally eradicate free will. Yikes!
In the second, contemporary Knights Templar scientists use a peculiar form of interrogation that forces Aguilar's only surviving descendant, Callum Lynch (also played by Fassbender), to relive the battle so they can find out where he hid the magical thingamajig. Double yikes!
Fassbender and Irons' names bring gravitas to the film, but their actual performances don't. Irons hams it up as the filthy-rich oligarch, and Fassbender seems to shut off his mind and go whole-hog action man.