History, which is foundational to the captivatingly bonkers story of Justin Kurzel’s “Assassin’s Creed,” tells us that this should be a very bad movie. For one thing, this dense, dour, and oft-delayed holiday spectacle is based on a popular series of video games — a grim omen in a year that brought us the likes of “Warcraft” and “Ratchet & Clank.” For another, Kurzel’s moody adaptation is told on a massive scale, budgeted to compete with other franchise monstrosities like “Rogue One” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” — the familiar trouble with making a film like this is that it’s too expensive to afford any risks.
But “Assassin’s Creed,” in which Michael Fassbender’s blank protagonist quite literally repeats history, refuses to be defined by the past. On the contrary, this bizarre, borderline incoherent action movie becomes the most interesting blockbuster of 2016 because of how defiantly it confronts the expectations of its heritage. As cold and weird as anything a major American studio has released since they started gearing all of their products for a Chinese audience — it borrows almost as much from “Under the Skin” as it does “The Matrix” — Kurzel’s film illustrates how free will can wiggle its way into the franchise system, how the messiness of bloodshed can be the only way to break free from the shackles of bloodlines.
The kind of movie that opens with a wall of dopey text about an ancient grudge and the violence it makes possible for our viewing pleasure (like “Star Wars,” but slightly ashamed of itself), “Assassin’s Creed” begins during the Spanish Inquisition, where a man named Aguilar de Nerha (Fassbender, enjoyably terse) leads a secret brotherhood of killers as they plot to protect a relic called “The Apple of Eden” from the rival Knights Templar. Cut to: 2016, where a career criminal named Callum Lynch (Fassbender again, this time with a snarl) is on death row in California for murdering a pimp. His execution goes as planned, except for the dying part; instead of being spirited away to oblivion, Callum wakes up in a Madrid research facility owned by Abstergo Industries, the present-day incarnation of the Templars.
Okay, here’s where shit gets silly — just take a deep breath and we’ll all get through this together: Abstergo, a monolithic company run by Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) and maintained by his daughter, Sophia (Marion Cotillard), has dedicated billions of dollars to a secret project where they abduct descendants of the Assassins and strap them to a machine called “the Animus,” which is sort of like a super intense VR version of ancestry.com. Using a glorified spinal tap to access the user’s genetic memory and then project it on a billow of fog, the giant contraption allows Abstergo to see the 15th century through the eyes of their captives’ great-great-great-great-great (etc.) grandparents.
Alan and Sophia keep a close eye on all of the playback, looking for any hint as to where the Apple — a magical device that represents “the seed of man’s first disobedience” and is endowed with the fascistic power to eliminate human agency — might now be hidden. By impaling Callum on the Animus, Abstergo can see through the eyes of Aguilar de Nerha, a man whose life apparently consisted of one frenetic action scene after another (mercifully, if inexplicably, the film’s nimble chase sequences aren’t from a first-person POV).
I could go on about Callum’s fellow prisoners, or his sordid relationship with his father (Brendan Gleeson), or how Charlotte Rampling somehow ends up as the film’s big bad (just be grateful and don’t ask questions), but it’s safe to assume that the “Assassin’s Creed” movie hasn’t forsaken the video games’ signature WTF factor. If anything, Kurzel has fully embraced it, the Australian director of grimly airless indie fare like “Snowtown” and “Macbeth” refusing to sacrifice a scrap of integrity for his characteristically bleak studio debut. In a production of this size, that obstinance comes off as willful strangeness — he drapes the film in a frigid gauze of gray so that light only pokes through in shafts, he frames throwaway scenes with the stillness of a renaissance painting, and he evens the whole film out with a haunting score by his brother Jed that sounds closer to Tim Hecker than it does Hans Zimmer.
Most refreshingly unexpected of all, he sets almost half of the film in Spanish even though the games provide a cheap rationale for why everyone is speaking English in 15th century Spain. The decision pays off brilliant dividends: Knowing that Fassbender is only so good at faking a fluency, Kurzel removes most of the dialogue from the flashback portions, focusing instead on all the leaping and stabbing and death from above. This adds a primal charge to the kinetically choreographed scenes in which Aguilar and Maria (an awesome fellow assassin played by “The Lobster” star Ariane Labed) unleash hell on dozens of unsuspecting Templars, and compensates for the unnecessary frequency with which Kurzel cuts back to images of Callum flailing around in the Animus.
It would be overstating the case to suggest that any of this coheres into anything particularly meaningful (though it steals just enough from “The Matrix” to offer a more nuanced illustration of the battle between determinism and free will), but the film’s weird rhythm and strange energy add a compelling new veneer to a story that boils down to the typical hero’s journey. Each line of dialogue — and there aren’t many — might sound like it’s from a different movie, but all of those movies sound like a blast. Mileage will vary, and it’s mighty hard to trace any clear arc for Cotillard’s non-character, but there’s no dismissing a work of art in which Jeremy Irons turns to the camera and barks: “The history of the world is the history of violence.”
Few studio offerings of this scale so proudly express the violence of their creative process, so openly confront their genetic makeup in order to become something better than what was written for them. Declaring “Assassin’s Creed” to be the best video game movie ever made is the kind of backhanded compliment that sounds like hyperbole, but the description fits the bill on both counts. Regardless of what you call this peculiar, arrestingly uninviting nonsense, the fact of the matter is that it’s the only blockbuster of 2016 that left me desperate for a sequel.
“Assassin’s Creed” opens in theater on December 21.