Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Cast: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Nazanin Boniadi, Morgan Freeman, Rodrigo Santoro, Ayelet Zurer, Pilou Asbæk, Sofia Black-D'Elia
MPAA Rating: (for sequences of violence and disturbing images)
Running Time: 2:04
Release Date: 8/19/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 18, 2016
It must be iterated that there is nothing inherently wrong with remakes or, as I prefer to think of them, new productions of previously produced material. This new version of Ben-Hur isn't bad because versions of this story already exist (a silent film from 1925 and the epic spectacle from 1959 being the most famous cinematic adaptations of Lew Wallace's 1880 novel). It's ineffective because it's never quite sure what it wants to be, and when it does appear to find a momentary purpose, the movie consistently undercuts its aims.
Whether that undercutting comes during the movie's big setpieces or in finding solid and consistent through lines for its characters, it always comes with the notion that there is potential for something worthwhile in this re-telling of the tale. The screenplay by Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley begins by emphasizing two elements that easily can be overlooked in a story of this scope: the characters and the political climate of this time and place. That both of these take a backseat to a familiar revenge plot and story-stopping sequences of spectacle is a given, on account of the source material. That those two elements never feel as if they reach beyond the basic needs of that plot and spectacle is entirely another matter.
In Rome-occupied Jerusalem circa 25 A.D., Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a Jewish prince, and his adopted brother Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell), who is of Roman heritage, have formed a bond, which—our trusty narrator informs us, as the narration does in the early stages of the story to hasten things forward—could signal unification. To live up to his ancestors, Messala joins the Roman army, while Judah marries Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) and tries to keep his family out of the affairs of zealots plotting against Roman rule.
After three years of witnessing the effects of Rome's violent conquests against various people across the continent, Messala wants to avoid that in his homeland. Judah wants the same thing, but he is unwilling to betray the zealots to the brutal hands of Roman punishment.
From the roof of the house of Hur, one of those zealots, whom Judah has hidden, attempts to assassinate Roman prefect Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk). Judah takes the blame, and under threat of punishment himself, Messala condemns his adoptive mother (Ayelet Zurer) and sister (Sofia Black-D'Elia) to death, while sentencing Judah to a life of slavery within the Roman navy. Meanwhile, a carpenter from Nazareth named Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) preaches a message of peace throughout the city.
On a surface level, the opening act fascinates in the way it juxtaposes the lives of the two brothers: one left to enjoy the privileges of his class and the other fighting in wars to which he's morally opposed. It should come as little surprise that the conflicted Messala—torn between the customs of his heritage and loyalty toward his family—is the more sympathetic of the duo (It also has to do with the fact that Kebbell's presence is simply stronger than that of Huston, who doesn't make much of an impression here). Even then, the dialogue is so on-the-nose about establishing the eventual conflict that the fraternal relationship feels restricted.
The contrast between the two, of course, turns out to be irrelevant, because, once the revenge plot is set in motion, the story belongs entirely to Judah. Messala becomes nothing more than a scowling villain, becoming a champion of the chariot in the Jerusalem circus and standing by for Judah's inevitable return. Judah escapes the bowels of the ship where he rows for five years, and under the tutelage of Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), the former prince learns the ways of the chariot.
To an extent, the shortcomings could be forgiven if, at least, the spectacle possessed the capacity for wonder. Director Timur Bekmambetov's camera is too frantic (The number of snap zooms in shots becomes amusing) and too close (There's one intriguing use of a close-up on Judah's whip-scarred back as a time transition) for the action sequences to have that kind of impact.
There is no sense of scope to the naval battle that results in Judah's freedom, which could be fine, if not for the fact that Bekmambetov mistakes close-ups and tight focus for intimate chaos, at the price of coherence. The story's famed chariot race has its own issues, and most of them have to do with the director's reliance on computer-generated effects (Also, the absurdity of Freeman's Ilderim shouting advice to his racer amidst the thunderous galloping of horses seems like a lame excuse to give the actor more screen time). The screenplay attempts to make the race a sport of strategy. The effort expended in explaining general ideas about those strategies, though, is wasted on a sequence that primarily revolves around destruction and carnage—some of it obscured by great clouds of digital dust.
This could be a story worth telling again, but it's difficult to determine from the movie at hand. Ben-Hur rushes through its most intriguing ideas under the mistaken belief that there are only a few things here—mostly the action and the eventual religious experience—worth telling.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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