By showing signs of intelligent life in a universe of diseased, digital drivel, Assassin's Creed stands above the herd of movies based on video games by default. Given the low-bar status of the genre, that's not saying much – remember Warcraft, when the gifted filmmaker Duncan Jones tried and disastrously failed to instill soul into a lifeless, role-playing franchise? That should have been a lesson to director Justin Kurzel and his producer/lead actor Michael Fassbender ... and yet these defiant rebels think they can change things. They eventually hit a brick wall, of course, but there's ferocious fun in watching them go at it with such lunatic energy and recklessness.
No sense in my trying to explain Assassin's Creed – I doubt even the most avid gamers could make a go of that. But here's the gist: Back in the 15th-century, during the Spanish Inquisition, Aguilar de Nerha (Fassbender, speaking Spanish with English subtitles) leads a secret society of assassins to capture the "Apple of Eden" from the Knights Templar to protect the right of free will. (WTF!) Cut to the present, where death-row inmate Callum Lynch (Fassbender, speaking English) is executed for killing a pimp. Except he doesn't die. He's spirited off to a Madrid research facility owned by Abstergo Industries, the present-day incarnation of the shadowy Templars, where he's drugged, hooked up to a rig called an Animus, and virtually reincarnated as his ancestor Aguilar.
Why, you ask? Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), the bossman at Abstergo, thinks Callum can use genetic memory to link up with Aguilar and tell the CEO where to locate the still-missing Apple of Eden, thus achieving every white dude's dream of world domination. Take away free will, and every man's your slave. This involves Callum going through the tortures of the damned. Rikkin puts his daughter Sophia (Marion Cotillard) in charge of the prisoner to make sure they don't kill the guy in the process or drive him bugfuck nuts. And it's not a good sign when Callum comes back from one of his mind trips singing Patsy Cline's "Crazy" at the top of his lungs. Wait, didn't Cotilland and Fassbender just star in Macbeth for Kurzel last year? They did. But Assassin's Creed is not Shakespeare. And so far the Bard has not inspired a video game.
Here's the thing: Fassbender and Kurzel are playing this stuff for real, as if it means something significant. Their enthusiasm is infectious ... up to a point. This is a classy cast for pedaling junk. And if there is such a thing as impish menace, Irons has it. In Kurzel's swooping camera movements during a knockout scene in which Aguilar and fellow assassin Maria (Ariane Labed) leap across rooftops, slicing and dicing whatever gets in the way of their good fight, Assassin's Creed catches the dizzying allure you want in a game and a movie. So what if philosophical depths are out of the film's reach, along with clarity and narrative coherence. There's a seed of ambition in this one that suggests the transfer of a video game to the screen doesn't always have to be a suicide mission. Assassin's Creed is no one's idea of perfect, but it's progress. And that's something.