First to finish. Last to die.
Reality is that it’s often best to leave the classics alone. In this regard, the new Ben-Hur reimagining may finally be the wake-up call that Hollywood has needed. Termed as a ‘new interpretation’ of the 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, written by Lew Wallace, the 2016 re-adaption was always going to be an uphill battle. Not only was the studio going head-to-head against William Wyler’s 1959 opus — which won 11 Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director — it’s also combating reboot fatigue, which finally seems to have kicked in. Following the silent versions in 1907 and 1925 and the 2003 animated feature of the same name, this marks the fifth time that Ben-Hur has appeared on-screen. Problem is, nobody these days gives a s&%t — old geezers have most likely seen the ’59 version countless times, while folks under 50 probably couldn’t give a rat’s ass, seeing as they’re more accustomed to the edgy sex and violence of say, Game of Thrones (2011).
Taking its cues from other sword-and-sandal epics such as 2000’s Gladiator along with Spartacus (1960) or The Ten Commandments (1956) — which was also remade in 2014 by Ridley Scott and titled Exodus: Gods and Kings — and directed by stylish action specialist Timur Bekmambetov, Wanted (2008), an odd choice given the material, the latest Ben-Hur adaptation crashes its chariot and totally loses the race. Jack Huston, Boardwalk Empire (2010), steps into Charlton Heston’s rather large shoes as Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince growing up in a Roman-occupied Jerusalem around the time of Christ, his closest friend and confidant being his adopted brother Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell), the pair sharing a solid camaraderie whilst growing up, both having a passion for racing horses. As adults the men take altered paths, Messala leaving home to become a Roman soldier and Judah continuing to indulge in his lavish lifestyle.
As threats mount around Jerusalem, Judah seeks to protect his household from the social turmoil ensuing, the Roman Empire suppressing Jewish radicals in order to control the land. The fight comes into his home when Judah shelters a wounded teenage zealot (Moisés Arias), who (deviating from the popular storyline) ends up disrupting a visit from Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek), bringing the wrath of Rome — and a hard-boiled Messala, returned to Jerusalem as part of its Roman garrison — down upon his family. With Judah being held accountable, he is condemned to the galleys where he spends five long years on a slave ship. After surviving a colossal wreck, he starts life anew as a protégé of a Nubian gambler named Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), wherein he decides to return to Jerusalem with revenge in his heart. There, the final confrontation takes place, Judah challenging his brother Messala to a grand chariot race around the city’s newly built ‘circus’ or hippodrome.
As one would expect, Ben-Hur is at its strongest when filmmaker Bekmambetov is staging the action (even if it feels like the film was made on the cheap), with an impressive naval battle, seen only from the viewpoint of Judah and his fellow inmates, standing as the flick’s biggest virtue. The notorious chariot race (which was photographed in Rome’s Cinecitta studios, where Wyler shot his ’59 rendition) is pretty decent, too, Timur delivering a bloodthirsty spectacle of shattered carts and flattened participants — it’s just a shame that the thrilling set-piece takes so long to arrive. The rest of the movie is widely uneven, playing out like a few different films in one. You have your classic friends-(or brothers)-turned-rivals thread with Bekmambetov rushing the story in order to make way for its prominent beats (Wyler’s masterpiece ran for almost four hours, this one little over two), resulting in a narrative that lacks depth — we’re given little to no insight into Judah’s headspace.
Produced by former Touched by an Angel (1994) star Roma Downey and her hubby Mark Burnett — yep that’s right, the dude who funded the Christian cable miniseries The Bible (2013) and A.D. The Bible Continues (2015), as well as the movie Son of God (2014) — it’s no surprise to find that Jesus has a more prominent role in this reimaging as opposed to the ’59 picture — heck, he even pops up on one of the promo posters! Portrayed by a convincing Rodrigo Santoro, 300 (2006), we see Jesus’ life, teachings, death and resurrection from the perspective of a fictional Jewish man but scenes that feature a preaching ‘love your enemies’ non-violence Christ, along with the flick’s Christian message of forgiveness, don’t really gel alongside the movie’s darker, more brutal sequences, the inclusion of the Lord coming across as tonally jarring (and a little cheesy) over and above anything else.
Acting wise, Jack Huston — the grandson of legendary director John Huston, The Maltese Falcon (1941) — steps into a rather big chariot as he takes on the role of the titular hero Judah Ben-Hur, the 33-year-old delivering an adequate rendering, even if he lacks the screen presence and magnetic allure of the great Charlton Heston. Moreover, Huston never quite achieves that middle ground between peaceful nobleman and revenge-driven slave, wavering more so on the latter. Toby Kebbell, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), fares a little better as his ambitious, power-hungry brother Messala, overshadowing Huston in the majority of their scenes together. A dreadlocked Morgan Freeman, The Shawshank Redemption (1994), is passable as the worldly Sheik Ilderim (even if his matted hair isn’t), a role that earned Hugh Griffith a Best Supporting Actor Oscar back in the day, however I doubt Freeman will receive any sort of awards buzz for this act.
Other cast members fail to leave any sort of impression, chiefly the female players who are basically reduced to helpless victims of circumstance. Nazanin Boniadi, Shirin in Love (2014), is rather dull as Judah’s wife Esther (who eventually becomes one of Jesus’ followers), Sofia Black-D’Elia, Project Almanac (2015), is even more bland as his sister Tirzah and would-be love interest for Messala, while Ayelet Zurer, Angels & Demons (2009), (at least) ticks all the right boxes as Naomi, Ben Hur’s mother.
Boasting an array of detailed costumes and sets, and a few adequate performances, Ben-Hur is competently made, but like so many remakes before it, the film never quite addresses the basic query as to why this story is worth retelling, the obvious being monetary — people know the name and therefore might pay for a ticket. Lacking any sort of focus or guiding principle, it’s hard to imagine anyone being moved or stirred by the new Ben-Hur. I guess in 2016, the well-worn phrase ‘bigger than Ben-Hur’ doesn’t carry much weight anymore.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
Ben-Hur is released through Paramount Pictures Australia