Friday, August 19, 2016

Movie Review: “Ben-Hur”


*** out of 5
124 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images
Paramount Pictures

Article first published at

Ben-Hur may not be the first Best Picture winner to get remade, but it is one of the more head scratching ones. After winning 11 Academy Awards — including Best Picture — maybe we really should just accept the fact that absolutely nothing is sacred anymore. Which is kind of an ironic statement considering it features Jesus and all.

Alas, here we are, with Timur Bekmambetov — the director of Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter — at the helm, throwing everything he has into the chariot sequence and never once providing any reason for it to have been remade in the first place. It could be some way for MGM to hold onto the rights, but even that isn’t true considering it’s already been remade before — albeit on the small screen.

Beginning in 33 AD, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is gearing up for the big showdown against adopted brother Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell). Then we cut back to eight years earlier as we find the two literally horsing around, racing each other across the plains. After Judah gets thrown from his horse, Messala carries him back home on his back.

As thankful as Judah may be, he can’t wrap his head around why Messala desires to see the world as badly as he does. So much so, that he’s willing to throw away the love his life, Judah’s sister Tirzah (Sofia Black-D’Elia), but Messala is off to fight in Rome where he works his way up the ranks under Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk).

Now, he’s returned home to ask Judah for help, but not before an attempt on Pilate’s life gets him cast out as a slave, where he survives a shipwreck and owes his life to Ilderim (Morgan Freeman) who uses him to shake up the Roman Empire in a wager Pilate just can’t refuse. It all leads up to the famous chariot race with brother pitted against brother in a literal race for their lives.

To give Bekmambetov credit, there are a couple of dazzling sequences. OK, two: the big chariot race and the sinking of the slave boat. These are the kind of action extravaganzas ripe for 3D and they mostly succeed. It’s just too bad the scenes are short lived, which is odd to say considering the race runs a good 15 minutes. But the best thing the film has going for it is the two-hour runtime. Some may think it feels like an eternity with it never reaching to be more than a huge budget TV movie, but keep in mind the Charlton Heston Oscar-winning classic runs a whopping 212 minutes! 

Considering all the Christian-themed movies making their way into theaters as of late, it’s kind of surprising he doesn’t play a bigger factor here. It could be that Paramount Pictures didn’t want to ostracize moviegoers and short shrifted his screentime. I may not be a religious man, but Rodrigo Santoro makes a pretty decent Jesus figure, while Huston and Kebbell don’t have the acting chops required to bear the load of the film on their shoulders.

There are some dopey moments and horrible dialogue scattered throughout Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley’s screenplay, but Bekmambetov at least tries to get the most out of his exotic scenery and seems to have saved his budget for the two big set pieces. Sadly, the chariot race is the only reason to sit through this buffed up edition of Ben-Hur, with the two leads never making anyone care for either brother. Huston fares better than Kebbell, but neither are worth sitting through the 90 minutes it takes to get to the good parts. Considering you can watch Heston’s astonishing chariot race on YouTube in full HD, it just makes even less sense to waste your time or money on this one.

The good news is it’s nowhere near the trainwreck it could have been. The bad news is, it lacks any reason to exist considering the original is still such an adored classic.

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