Ben-Hur Review: Sword and Sorrow


Director: Timur Bekmambetov

Writers: Keith Clarke, John Ridley

Stars: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman, Nazanin Boniadi

ben-hur-2016-poster


Release date: August 25th, 2016

Distributor: Paramount Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Country: USA

Running time: 123 minutes


2/5

Best part: The chariot race.

Worst part: The sluggish pace.

Hollywood has latched onto organised-religion crowds for greater box-office returns. Movies including God’s Not Dead, although strange to most, appeal to a large segment of the population. Tinseltown’s most talented are also getting on board, with Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings also aiming for that market. 2016’s Ben-Hur remake may single-handedly destroy this trend.

Actually, this is not the first ever Ben-Hur remake. The William Wyler-directed 1959 version is the quintessential version. The huge budget, Charlton Heston’s vigour, chariot race and epic scope helped it score 11 Academy Awards and become an instant classic. Surprisingly, there were multiple Ben-Hurs in the early 20th Century. This version never strays from convention. Here, Jewish nobleman Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and adoptive Roman brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) grow up together in Jerusalem’s higher class. Messala, despite his affections for Tirzah (Sofia Black D’Elia), feels alienated by matriarch Naomi (Ayelet Zurer) and the family’s faith. After his enlistment and time in the Roman Army, he returns to warn Ben-Hur of oncoming threats. From there, the two butt heads and become fearsome foes.

The 1959 hit influenced Gladiator and sword-and-sandal epic in between. This Ben-Hur begs the question – Why now? No matter what the studio, cast, creatives etc. created, nothing would have eclipsed the 1959 version’s quality, exhaustive length, touching religious commentary and revolutionary tricks. Writers Keith Clarke and John Ridley (the latter behind 12 Years a Slave) deliver irritating and alienating dialogue. The first half relies on religious discussion between the characters, grinding the pace to a screeching halt. Non-religious folks will despise the movie’s feckless stance on faith and history. Sadly, director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) is not fit for the material. Lacking Ridley Scott’s deft touch, the schlock filmmaker appears bored by everything besides the action, special effects etc.

Ben-Hur follows the long line of laughable, anachronistic and feeble-minded modern historical/mythical epics. The movie never diverts from the standard revenge-drama narrative. It’s predictability is almost cowardly – the good guys are sweet and vanilla, the love interest – Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) – is whispy, the bad guys snivel and twist moustaches, Morgan Freeman plays the wise cracking mystical-magical black man etc. Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro) pops up to deliver bumper-sticker lines. This version may be remembered for its South American-looking depiction of the famous carpenter. Bekmambetov, halfway through, appears to wake up. The slave-ship sequence, training montages and almighty chariot race are particularly inventive. The grand sound design and fun action beats reduce the tedium.

Ben-Hur, like most of 2016’s blockbusters, is unnecessary, generic and borderline offensive. This useless remake squanders a fantastic cast, capable director and momentous resources. Attention Hollywood: Not everything should be remade!

Verdict: Pointless and unnecessary. 

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