Review: Ben-Hur (2016)

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Ben-Hur (1959) is one of the undisputed classic epics of the Golden Age of Hollywood along with things like Spartacus and The Ten Commandments.  This new Ben-Hur is probably going to be forgotten in about a month or two as another footnote for one of the worst summers in movie history.

Jack Huston tries to fill Charlton Heston’s sandals as Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince living in Jerusalem who’s family adopts a Roman orphan named Messala (Toby Kebbell).  Messala feels the need to prove himself and joins the Roman army, eventually becoming a high ranking centurion and he returns home to crush rebels who are attacking Roman troops and protesting Roman rule. A wounded rebel Judah has been hiding in his home attacks Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk) and Judah and his family are arrested, with Judah sent to 5 years in hell as a galley slave.  He escapes when the ship he’s on sinks during a massive naval battle and runs into Ilderim, a chariot racing manager, which gives him a chance at vengeance in the chariot racing arena.  Huston does a fairly typical avenging hero performance, talking in menacing whispers and plotting his revenge while Toby Kebbell, and most of the Roman soldiers in the movie, are portrayed as pretty much nothing but despicable assholes who bully and murder the weak and helpless. There isn’t a lot of subtlety or subtext to the movie, most of the first half is people directly saying what side they are on and what their opinions are.   There’s also Jesus, played by Rodrigo Santoro, and it’s always jarring when he appears, as everyone stops what they are doing as if they are thinking, “oh shit, it’s Jesus!”.  It’s kind of ironic that Rodrigo Santoro is portraying Jesus after portraying the polar opposite of him as Xerxes in 300.    Morgan Freeman also feels like he’s sleepwalking through his part, although it’s impossible for him to not lend at least some gravitas with his iconic voice.

It’s pretty clear that director Timur Bekmambetov was focused mainly on replicating the iconic chariot race from the original and version here is pretty good and there’s more carnage and interactions with the other racers, unlike in the original where it was basically Judah vs Messala for the entire race.  Obviously we have CG now, unlike in 1959, and while it can make things look cooler and do things that weren’t possible back then, it also lacks the realism and feeling of danger of the original.  Also, for costing over $100 million, the CG is not that great either in the chariot race or the first half set piece of the naval battle.  Bekmambetov had an incredible, stylish debut with Wanted but it seems more and more that maybe that was one time fluke, as his subsequent work hasn’t been that great or interesting.

This new Ben-Hur is a lot like most of the remakes in recent years in that it doesn’t justify it’s existence in any way.  There’s really no reason to watch this version over the original except possibly running time (the 1959 movie justifies it’s epic description by running over 3 1/2 hours long) and it’s just kind of dull for most of it’s runtime and the chariot race setpiece is not worth the 90 minute wait.  If you’ve never seen the original, set aside an afternoon and check that out instead.

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