PLOT: Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a Jewish prince, is betrayed by his adopted Roman brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell), who accuses him of treason against Rome. Sent to the galleys as a slave, after a dramatic escape he hatches a plan for vengeance involving a wealthy sheik (Morgan Freeman) and a grand chariot race.
REVIEW: One can’t fault director TImur Bekmambetov for being ambitious. On paper, a remake of BEN-HUR tying into the burgeoning Christian market probably made sense, but this 2016 version of the oft-told tale hits theaters riding a wave of bad reviews and dire box-office predictions. While he’s working with a considerable $100 million budget, this new BEN-HUR can’t even begin to compete with the spectacle of the previous versions. Heck, both the 1925 silent version and the 1959 Charlton Heston epic cost so much they nearly bankrupted their studios (only to rake in enormous profits after being released).
The ’59 version directed by William Wyler is still a benchmark film as far as historical dramas go, and this 123 minute version of the story feels like a CliffsNotes version compared to the 212 minute original. It’s amazing how much that film manages to dwarf this one in spectacle, with even new 3D visuals not being able to hold a candle to the huge scope of the original.
By necessity, much of the story has been condensed, with major characters being dropped and the action being limited mostly to Jerusalem, with Judah’s galley slave episode only briefly leaving the bowels of the ship. As such, this feels like a pale imitation of the original, and no matter how much CGI spectacle you sprinkle-in, it can’t compare to the majesty of the original, which holds up pretty well fifty-seven years later.
However, despite the early brutal reviews this BEN-HUR redux isn’t a total disaster. There are things to like about it. For one thing, Bekmambetov is admirably toned-down compared to some of his other films, and it’s clear he was trying to make a solid, serious adventure – although the handheld, GoPro camera work for certain bits was jarring and cheap. Jack Huston also makes for a pretty solid Ben-Hur. While not the towering icon Heston was, Huston does his own thing, and even if the film is a flop, Huston deserves another shot at big-screen stardom. The only area his performance falls flat is in his chemistry with love interest Nazanin Boniadi, but this is more due to her role being badly under-written.
Toby Kebbell is also good as Messala, playing him as more confused than straight-up evil as Stephen Boyd did in the other version. Morgan Freeman also has fun as the Sheik, who trains Judah with his horses, and it must be said, Freeman’s hair in this is off-the charts amazing. Rodrigo Santoro also makes for a good Jesus Christ, although maybe not as solid as Cliff Curtis was a few months ago in RISEN (which seems underrated now after a little distance).
Despite being co-produced by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett’s faith-based production company, for the most part this BEN-HUR isn’t all that religious – at least not until an ill-conceived epilogue to the story that shoehorns in a “forgiveness” message that seems tacked-on from a different movie and leads to a Sunday school ending complete with a pop song over the end credits. It’s a shame this ending mars the movie so badly, as for the most part this is an acceptable take on Lew Wallace’s story, with the centerpiece chariot race being a good sequence if – again – nowhere near up to the standards of either previous big-screen versions of the story. If you haven’t seen the original BEN-HUR, and leave immediately after the crucifixion, you might actually enjoy the film somewhat, but if you stick it out to the end, the ending just about saps whatever goodwill towards it you’ll have. Again – this isn’t the full-on disaster some were predicting, but it’s still just mediocre and with perhaps a little reworking of the epilogue, it might have made for a decent film.
CLICK IMAGE TO OPEN GALLERY & SEE MORE PICS...