Starring: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Running Time: 123mins
Synopsis: Judah Ben-Hur (Huston) and adopted brother Messala (Kebbell) go from loving siblings to enemies when Messala becomes a high ranking member of the Roman Empire. Accusing Judah of treason, he is cast out and made a slave. But Ben-Hur struggles on for 5 years in order to find his family and seek revenge.
The third iteration in the tale of Ben-Hur opens with two things we need to end in filmmaking. One, the use of Morgan Freeman as an opening narrator. Endlessly utilised and, thanks to insurance adverts, endlessly parodied, his dulcet tones are at once calming and far too familiar. Two, opening a picture with a scene from the third act, then flashing back to see how we reached this point. It is hard to name a film where this is a successful device, for the most part it only exists to rob a film of any real dramatic momentum. We have just witnessed where things end up so where lies the tension in the prelude.
I use these two examples in order to encapsulate what little surprises lie in store in this solidly made but ultimately unnecessary remake. The Charlton Heston, Easter Sunday viewing 1959 classic is a hard film to challenge. Epic in scale, direction and running time, it is quite rightly considered one of the last great Hollywood magnum opus’s. Nightwatch director Bekmambetov is under the impression that adding some, admittedly effective, large scale action sequences justifies another go around. I can only imagine this was his reasoning as nothing else in the story, acting or direction gives rise as to why remake such a hallowed piece of film history.
Huston makes for a perfectly serviceable lead, sadly not bringing the same wounded humanity he brought to his Boardwalk Empire role, but is hindered by a po-faced script. Toby Kebbell, another terrific performer, also struggles to give the words any real gravitas. We are meant to feel like his decisions are fraught with internal struggles but this is never evident, meaning once he makes the catastrophic choice to betray his family it all comes across a little easy for him. The twosome do sell some aspects of their brotherly bond, but it is very intermittent.
Morgan Freeman tries hard too, and succeeds in making the dialogue feel less laboured, but his character is a typical wise old sage with little of the warmth he brought to similar roles in Batman or Shawshank. However we must give thanks to whoever made the decision to give him breathtaking dreadlocks, a source of the only real smile to be had.
One saving grace is the aforementioned action. A sequence on a slave ship as we see events primarily from Ben-Hur’s POV is intense and showcases Bekmambetov’s unique action eye, although it is hindered somewhat by some poor CGI. This is then followed by the coup de grace and probably the only reason for Bekmambetov to tackle this remake, the chariot chase. A well documented part of the ’59 version, taking months to film and costing millions. (Although not quite as well known as the first adaptation of the story in 1925 which resulted in the deaths of horses and extras). The 2016 version is thrilling, well shot and surprisingly CGI light. It is the best part of this whole endeavour.
Unfortunately it is followed by what must be the most misjudged epilogue in history. Working in Jesus Christ, as per the original story, in a heavy handed manner. It veers into outlandishly preachy territory as it attempts to wrap up everything in sunshine and happiness. The cherry on top of this bad tasting cake is a hideous cringy pop song playing over the final shot. I’m not sure why anyone thought ending a story of crucifixion, slavery and religious confrontation with cheesy warbling pop garbage would be a good idea but like a Morgan Freeman narration they need to be stopped, at all costs.
Verdict: Offering little in the way of surprises and not a patch on the ’59 version, Ben-Hur isn’t quite as bad as some would suggest but appears to be one sterling thrilling chariot chase in search of a film!