TL;DR – I’m sorry to be blunt, but this film is just boring, only the chariot race redeems it slightly
Score – 1.5 out of 5 stars
Arg, I’m going, to be honest with you, I went into Ben-Hur with very low expectations, this year of remake/re-interpreting/sequels galore is really starting to grate on me (see Ghostbusters, The Legend of Tarzan etc), as well as this, of all the films that did not need to be remade, the original Ben-Hur is up there with movies like Gone with the Wind, timeless classics, and nothing in the pre-release media blitz caught my attention. But I am a long suffering optimist, and I really wanted to be proven wrong here, unfortunately even my low expectations were sadly left wanting, the final product does itself, and its legacy, a real disservice for being just as bad as it is.
For those who have not ever seen the classic Ben-Hur tells the story [oh and by the way, we are going deep into spoilers here, but like the film has been out since 1959 and the book was written in 1880 so like I think it is safe to say the statute of limitations is long past] of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) a decedent of Jewish royalty who is living in Roman occupied Jerusalem. He grows up with his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) who is Roman. Fast forward some time and shock horror Ben-Hur and Messala fall out and Ben-Hur is exiled to work in a galley, then some revenge happens sort of.
It is the story where Ben-Hur has its first and biggest stumble, now I can’t tell you how close it is to original book because I have never read it myself, but there are a lot of changes from the 1959 movie, and none of them are good. They all make the story far more complicated than it needed to be. In the original film Ben-Hur and Messala are besties that fall out because they are from two different worlds but they both like the same girl Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), a simple clear motivation, here they are adoptive brothers for some reason, that lived in the same house, who like different people, so it makes little sense Messala would be so callous to kill off his mother and sister. Also in the 2016 movie, Ben-Hur is sent away after a young Zealot he is hiding attacks the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk) by firing an arrow from Ben-Hur’s house, at which point Ben-Hur sends the boy away and confesses to the crime. One, that is the stupidest thing Ben-Hur could have done in that situation, two it makes no sense that the Romans would not have immediately punished him with death for trying to kill the Governor when later in the film 20 random citizens were killed just because one soldier was assaulted. In the original film, it was some loose tiles that fell off the roof that spooked the Governor’s horse, and that leads to a much more realistic response. Also, the back-half of the film is really truncated making Ben-Hur’s appearance in the final (and only) chariot race feel more than a little dubious as the only sense we get that he know how to ride a chariot is a short training montage. Also as he is not freed by a Roman in this version, there is no reason why Pilate does not simply just arrest and kill Ben-Hur, as he is for all intents and purposes a runaway prisoner, in fact, it would be his obligation to arrest Ben-Hur. Oh, and they go for the Hollywood cop-out ending that undercuts both the book and 1959 movie narrative. All of these changes are just unnecessary, they add nothing to the movie bar making it more complicated, and just make the narrative quite boring.
The next area the movie falls down in is the acting, there is no chemistry between any of the cast, the closest I can relate it to is a really bad soap opera, like worse than Passions bad, where people are talking at each other, rather than having an actual real conversation. This means that nothing in the film has any emotional weight, it is just a bunch of meh. As well as this, Ben-Hur talks like he was a participant in a bad Christian Bale Batman competition, and there was something really odd with the way a lot of the cast talked. I don’t know quite what it is like the audio does not match the performance, like they dubbed over it in post-production and didn’t get it to match, so people are almost yelling when it looks like they were whispering. Of all the cast Morgan Freeman gives the strongest performance, but then Mr Freeman could phone it in and still be better than most.
There is one glimmer of hope in this film, and indeed it is the one thing that stops this film from being a complete and utter write-off, and that’s the chariot race and to a lesser extent a small naval battle. That chariot race is amazing and it is here we actually get to see director Timur Bekmambetov shine. The action is intense, it makes good use of different camera angles including what I think were some Go-Pros in the sand which is just cool. It has intensity in its action, and it is paced really well. There is some CGI used but mostly it is there to enhance the physical shots or to replace horses in sequences that they would not be able to film because of potential injury. But no matter how awesome this sequence is, or indeed because of how good it is, it puts into sharp relief just how bad the rest of the film is, and since it is just 10 minutes of the run time and it only happens once, it make you wanting for more, but not in the good way of say Chef’s Table where you reach the end of the season and don’t know what to do with yourself anymore.
In the end honestly, I think I found Suicide Squad (Review) to be the more enjoyable film to watch because at least there was stuff happening all the time, even if that stuff was badly written rubbish. For a movie with such a strong reputation and legacy, changing plot points was always going to be problematic, especially when those changes are for the worse. I think it would have been better to just do a shot for a shot remake or there about, then go down this route. Unfortunately, I recommend saving your money and giving this one a miss or go and watch the original film (or indeed Russel Crowe’s Gladiator).
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Directed by – Timur Bekmambetov
Screenplay by – Keith Clarke & John Ridley
Based on – Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace
Starring – Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman, Nazanin Boniadi, Rodrigo Santoro, Sofia Black D’Elia, Ayelet Zurer & Pilou Asbæk
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: 14A; NZ: M; UK: 12A; USA: PG13