The maxim that video games make for poor filmic adaptations does not entirely hold true with the release of Assassin's Creed, a glossy and occasionally impressive new entrant in the larger canon that entertainment giant Ubisoft first unleashed nine years ago.
Given the landscape in which it exists, the fact that Justin Kurzel's picture is not a complete disaster seems miraculous. From Super Mario Bros. to Tomb Raider (with much in between) the scale of translating console content into something which inspires more than scorn has long proved puzzlingly difficult. Looking at this latest effort, of course, it should not be forgotten that Assassin's Creed requires the acclaimed director of Macbeth and Snowtown, and a cast featuring the former's lead duo of Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, to avoid outright failure.
Fassbender plays Callum Lynch, a convicted murderer who is snatched away to a shadowy post-modern facility by the equally murky Abstergo organisation and plugged into a somewhat invasive machine, named the Animus, for the purpose of mining the recollections of his Assassin ancestor, Aguilar de Nerha (also Fassbender).
Aguilar was a member of the eponymous order, which in 1492 hid the Apple of Eden – a powerful relic capable of reshaping human behaviour – from the dastardly Templars. Both groups continue to exist, with the latter, unsurprisingly, being the power behind Abstergo and its urbane head honcho, Dr Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons playing Jeremy Irons).
Under the watchful eye of Rikkin's scientist daughter, Sophia (Cotillard), Lynch is cast back to the Spain of his forebear, the projections of his genetically coded memories forming the basis of the villains' search for their prize.
The plot itself is not completely without smarts, though as with a lot of these things, its high-concept sheen could do with another polish. Yet, it is in the visuals and execution that Kurzel most obviously succeeds. His Inquisition-era Castile comes replete with choking smoke and a lazy sunlight that bathes proceedings in a warm amber hue. As a backdrop to the violence in the foreground (significantly toned down thanks to a money-hungry 12A rating), it is all rather beautiful.
Playing off the games' obvious cinematic stylings (watch out for nods here and there to playable experiences), Kurzel sends his camera swooping and soaring with the golden eagle that serves as a talisman in each series entry. A selection of action scenes, inspired by the franchise's central penchant for parkour, dazzle in spurts, though there is nothing here to rival the genre leaders. That said, as abstract as they are supposed to be, these diversions feel more real than the modern setting, imbued with intrigue and spirit. The characters even converse in Spanish.
It is unfortunate, then, that they should be so underserved. The adventures of Aguilar are treated as a science project, meant only to be observed, rather than understood; they are afforded little room to breath or expand.
The contemporary arc, itself so irritating and intrusive an element of the games, is infinitely less interesting, yet the period strands are all geared towards tying this together. Callum's journey from clueless outcast to committed member of the Creed comes and goes in the blink of eye, reeking of cliché. Where the depths of his tale would be better explored, bombast is deployed instead. A loud finale rushes to a conclusion, eschewing the grace of its Medieval subject to establish an artificial sequel-tease of good versus evil, light and dark. If this isn't crushingly disappointing, it isn't especially engaging either.
Fassbender embraces his duties with brio, but he can do nothing to render this essential viewing.