The Assassin's Creed video games are about skipping through tedious cut scenes set in the present so that you can vault into the past, through and over gorgeous recreations of the roofs and streets of medieval and Renaissance cities. Sometimes you chase floating feathers through Florence. Often, you'll sneak behind and murder the wicked. And every time you're tasked with trailing a mark through a marketplace, you will accidentally climb a trellis for no reason.
The Assassin's Creed movie is about all the parts you might skip in the games. It's set in the now, is as grim as a break room around layoff time and foregrounds an absurd Da Vinci Code plot about the secret order of Templars battling a guild of assassins over millennia. The prize both groups seek: the Apple of Eden, which is reputed to contain the seed — or, bafflingly, “the DNA” — of humanity's free will. In the games, you can ignore this stuff for long stretches, instead bounding about fancy-free, checking out vistas and sprinting across basilicas and castle walls. Don't expect feather-chasing or nimble Douglas Fairbanks derring-do from the movie. Instead, steel yourself for baffling apple monologues in the grayscale offices of an evil tech company, many bloodless PG-13 throat-slashings and lots of soaring CGI shots of old-world cityscapes so choked with mist that they look like parts of a game level you haven't yet unlocked.
Team Templar (represented, thanks to game developer Ubisoft's apparent deep pockets, by Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Irons) wants the apple so that they can clamp down on free will itself. Cotillard plays a scientist whose motives we're meant to take as misguided rather than evil — she's seeking a “cure for violence,” which naturally would lead one to the literal apple munched by the literal Eve in the literal Garden of Eden. Curiously, nobody on her team considers the fact that maybe the world should be alerted to the existence of proof of stories from Genesis. (That's the book, not the Sega console.)
Repping Team Assassin is Michael Fassbender, ripped and blank in the manner of a video-game hero rather than a movie one. In the spirit of the Xbox, he doesn't emote much, as if his character's inner life is meant to be filled in by you, the player/viewer. In his first scene, his character is given a lethal injection by prison doctors, and Fassbender capably grits his teeth and suffers. After that, he awakens deep inside the Madrid offices of Templar, Inc., where he's quickly strapped to/suspended from a snaking VR-memory machine that allows him to live (and act out) the experiences of his ancestors from centuries before.
The key ancestor was an assassin, one on the trail of that apple, and the experiences our hero relives are action-adventure set pieces. First comes an impressively staged carriage chase. Then, 50 minutes in, there's finally a long scene of rooftop parkour across 1492 Madrid. But after that Assassin's Creed is mostly mired in the present, as our hero faces daddy issues. Of the four women who get to talk in the movie, two get killed for assassin reasons, because they believe deeply in the creed our male hero comes to espouse. Maybe this miserable junk is the fantasy action-adventure dreamed of by all those dudes mad that Star Wars now lets girls play, too?
Starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, and Khalid Abdalla. Directed by Justin Kurzel. Written by Bill Collage, Adam Cooper, and Michael Lesslie. Rated PG-13. 140 minutes. Opens wide Wednesday, December 21.