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Can ‘Assassin’s Creed’ Succeed Where ‘Warcraft’ Failed?

The star power attached to the Fox video game film should help attract non-gamer crowds to U.S. theaters

Legendary’s “Warcraft,” released in June, made just $47 million at the U.S. box office — seemingly a total disaster given its reported $160 million production budget. However, the film balanced that out by reeling in $434 million worldwide, including $221 million in China.

That’s not unusual for video game-based movies — “Warcraft” is based on the “World of Warcraft” game series — which tend to do fairly well internationally, particularly in Asia and Europe, but historically have had a hard time getting traction at home.

Fox, Ubisoft and New Regency hopes to break that cycle with “Assassin’s Creed,” a movie based on the video game series of the same name that hits theaters Wednesday — in the midst of the mega-budget blockbusters and awards hopefuls of the holiday season.

The film stars Michael Fassbender playing two roles: Callum Lynch, a career criminal, and Aguilar de Nerha, an assassin operating in 15th century Spain — and Lynch’s ancestor. After a mysterious organization, the Abstergo Foundation, rescues him from his execution, Lynch is forced to unlock his genetic memories and relive Aguilar’s experiences in order to confront enemies in the present day. Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling and Michael K. Williams also feature in “Assassin’s Creed.”

The movie is set in the same universe as the video game series, but its plot follows a new original story. It does, however, include some of the games’ signature elements, including the 125-foot “Leap of Faith” jump – performed for real by Fassbender’s stunt double.

However, it’s those marquee names at the top – more than the plot or fealty to the games themselves — that may represent “Assassin’s Creed’s” best chance at being the rare video game movie that pleasantly surprises at the box office.

Video game movies face a double-edged problem: directors can be overly faithful to the game and end up with a clunky and often needlessly complicated plot, or they can take artistic license in order to improve the flow and coherence of a self-contained movie and risk antagonizing the games’ hardcore fans – who are relied on to provide an opening weekend boost. Trying to balance the two to produce an actual good movie almost never happens — most video game films tend to get eviscerated by critics — but putting a big star or two at the top does seem to make a difference at the box office.

Early signs are promising for “Assassin’s Creed” with regard to the latter: According to latest tracking, the movie is projected to make roughly $37 million over the six-day Christmas weekend. That’s despite its brutal 19 percent score on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, which isn’t too far from par for the course for a video game film.

And if history is any indication, the key to breaking out of the mediocre performance of most video game movies might be to follow the “Assassin’s Creed” blueprint — forget about critical dumping and just worry about casting household names.

That was the case for best performing domestic video game movie of all-time, Paramount’s “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” which featured Angelina Jolie in the title role, and went on to make $131 million domestically and $275 million worldwide when it was released in 2001, despite an abysmal 20 percent Rotten Tomatoes score.

“Lara Croft’s” foreign box office could have been even higher, the film registered just $2.1 million in China, back when the country’s box office was about one-fiftieth the size it is today, but it did well in Europe and other Asian markets, which is normal for video game films.

Sony’s animated “Angry Birds” movie, which came out in May, was the only other video game based film to pull in more than $100 million at the domestic box office, but it was based on a mobile game with a much wider — and demographically diverse — casual fan base than “World of Warcraft” and “Assassin’s Creed” enthusiasts. The film also did have some star power in its voice over cast, including Jason Sudeikis, Kate McKinnon and Danny McBride.

In third place among video game adaptations by domestic box office is Disney’s 2010 “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” starring the decidedly-not-Persian-but-eminently-bankable Jake Gyllenhaal as the title character, which made $90.8 million domestically and $336 million worldwide on a reported $200 million production budget. And while it achieved just a 36 percent Rotten Tomatoes score, that’s actually decent for a video game movie – although it’s not likely many people saw the film because of that relative acclaim.

On the other hand, the somewhat lesser luminescence of “Warcraft” stars Paula Patton and Ben Foster could only push their film to barely half of what “Prince of Persia” was able to make at U.S. theaters. “Assassin’s Creed” is one of the world’s most popular video games, but it may be up to the drawing power of Fassbender and Cotillard to help the film avoid reliving the memories of one of its most recent video game movie antecedents – and actually perform at the domestic box office.