Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Stars: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman, Pilou Asbaek, Rodrigo Snatoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer, Moises Arias.
Despite the success of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and Mel Gibson’s visceral The Passion Of The Christ, the lavish big budget Biblical epic and sword and sandals drama has gone the way of the once popular western. They have become a moribund genre that holds little appeal or relevance for today’s movie going audiences raised on a diet of CGI generated special effects and super hero movies. And so it seems to be with this largely insipid, uninspired, pointless, visually dull and lacklustre remake of William Wyler’s quintessential 1959 Oscar winning classic Ben-Hur, a definitive epic which back then set the standard for filmmaking.
The saying “bigger than Ben-Hur” seems largely diminished and cheapened in the wake of this empty spectacle from visionary Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov, better known for his flashy visual style and special effects driven films like Nightwatch, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, etc. To his credit though Bekmambetov does not try to slavishly recreate the 1959 version, but instead reimagines the essential elements of the story. Although this version runs approximately half the length of the 211 minutes of the 1959 film, the story telling seems somehow rushed, and this condensed Reader’s Digest-like take leaves audiences little time to soak up the experience. Ultimately it leaves a less than lasting impression on the audience.
Ben-Hur is based on the 19th century New Testament story written by General Lew Wallace, who was then Governor of New Mexico, and was a story of faith, compassion, revenge, forgiveness, redemption and rebellion set against the backdrop of the Roman occupation of the Jewish homelands and the sacred city of Jerusalem. It told the story of the rivalry between Judah Ben-Hur, the son of a wealthy Jewish family, and his adopted brother Messala Severus, who rose to prominence in the Roman army.
Returning home after years of waging war, Messala requests Judah’s help in identifying potential rebels who may lead an insurrection against the Roman army. Judah refuses because he is unwilling to become involved in politics. But when an attempt is made to assassinate the despised visiting Roman ruler Pontius Pilate, Judah finds his family betrayed by Messala. Judah himself is forced into slavery on a Roman galley ship, and his family imprisoned. But eventually he became a hero to his people via the now famous chariot race which pitted him against Rome’s champion Messala. His victory over Messala ironically inspired his people to rise up against the repressive Roman conquerors.
English actor Jack Huston, the grandson of legendary Oscar winning director John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen, The Treasure Of Sierra Madre, etc) steps into the role made famous by the square jawed Charlton Heston in 1959. But Huston (from American Hustle, etc) lacks Heston’s charisma and commanding screen presence, and his wooden performance makes for a fairly lacklustre Ben-Hur.
Toby Kebbell (from Warcraft, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, etc) fares a little better with his interpretation of the ambitious and driven Messala, but he manages to suffuse his character with more nuance and subtlety, and he is not the duplicitous character portrayed by Stephen Boyd. Morgan Freeman brings his usual gravitas to his role as Sheik Ilderim, an Arab trainer of chariot riders, and he also lends his authorative tones to the occasional voice over narration.
And this version makes the religious nature of the subtext more overt with an extended appearance from an overly romanticised Jesus (played by Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, from Focus, the animated Rio, etc) who gives him a more contemporary attitude. His character is responsible for Judah’s spiritual awakening. Danish actor Pilou Asbaek (from A Hijacking, etc) plays Pontius Pilate as a brutal dictator.
This is a flawed film that attempts to recreate the two key action set pieces from the 1959 version – the sea battle and the slave ship and the climactic chariot race. Bekmambetov’s brief for the climactic nine minute chariot race seems to have been to make it louder and more violent than before, but his frenetic approach and over reliance on CGI effects and cinematographer Oliver Wood’s overuse of shaky handheld cameras almost renders it unwatchable. It lacks the genuine sense of suspense and excitement of Wyler’s film. This sequence was filmed on an impressive set in Rome’s legendary Cinecitta studios, where Wyler shot his 1959 film, but somehow it isn’t as exciting or as memorable as his vision. For those unfamiliar with the original though this bone-crunching sequence will undoubtedly be a highlight.
Ben-Hur may not be the travesty most cynics were anticipating, but it does again raise the question of why Hollywood studios persist in producing inferior remakes of classic films from yesteryear.