By Jack Dignan
In this day and age, remakes are not an uncommon occurrence. In fact, they occur almost a little too often, Hollywood always cashing in on popular titles. Ben-Hur is one of the most iconic films of all time, winning a whopping eleven Academy Awards including best picture. It's a classic. Now, in 2016, over 50 years after the release of the original, we get an upbeat, action packed retelling of this landmark piece of cinema, from the director of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter no less. To be fair, that sounds a whole lot worse than the actual movie is, but my god, this just really doesn't need to exist.
Set in Ancient Rome, Ben-Hur is the story of a wealthy prince by the name of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston). His adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) is sent away to war for a number of years, only to return as an officer, now in charge of a large number of soldiers. Shortly after returning, Judah Ben-Hur and the rest of his family are falsely accused of a crime none of them even committed. His family are killed, and Judah Ben-Hur is sent away to a life of slavery. When his ship is sunk, he winds up in the custody of Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), who gives Judah Ben-Hur an opportunity to take his revenge.
I went into this movie expecting absolute dog shit. The trailers were horrendous, the reviews were bad, and it just didn't sound like a necessary movie. It failed to captivate my interests, and I will be honest, it wasn't until I got the screening invite that I even realised this film was coming out soon. It sort of came out of nowhere for me. Expectations were low, and I guess that's the reason why I'm surprised at just how average the film is. This could've been a total train wreck, and for one reason or another, it's not. Barely.
Trimming down the three hour and forty minute runtime of the 50s version, this new Ben-Hur has been revamped for a modern day audience, creating a slow paced, mildly entertaining and mindless action film. Should it be an action film? Probably not. But it is, so I guess I have to review it as one. It doesn't manage to come close to being as epic as it hopes to be, as at times it does feel pretty cheap and poorly made, but they try very hard. It just can't help but feel even more staged and theatrical than it probably is.
We begin in Rome, prior to Messala's departure to the war, and it's during this opening sequence that I was mildly invested in the story. Sure, everything looks cheap and like plastic, but I was enjoying seeing this brother dynamic blossom, planting the seeds of everyone's relationships. It's when Ben-Hur is sold off into slavery that the film started to become a bit of a mixed bag. It's a three hour epic condensed down into two, all of the storylines being rushed through as quickly as possible, and it's all over the place. Some things work, others don't. They're unable to find the right balance for the plot, and the result isn't pretty.
In terms of performances, there's nobody that's necessarily bad, per say, but nobody is fantastic, either. Jack Huston does an impressive job as Ben-Hur, but nothing about what he does feels like new ground. He gives a fairly safe performance that doesn't scream with brilliance. He is simply fine, nothing more. Toby Kebbell is a slight improvement, although a great deal of his lines in the first act feel forced. The third act is where he shines, even if there is a moment where he looks like a cat meme, and that moment made me laugh out loud in the middle of the cinema. Also, I'd like to take a moment to appreciate Morgan Freeman's dreadlocks because they were hilariously beautiful.
Now, I can't really talk about Ben-Hur (any of them, really) without discussing the famous chariot race. While it does take place towards the finale, it's not a spoiler. A) it's been showcased all over the posters and trailers. B) the original chariot race is one of the most iconic scenes of all time. C) the movie opens with the start of the race. So do not worry, no spoilers are found here. As for the actual race, it is, predictably, the best part of the movie. There's nothing shocking or surprising about any of it, but it's a fun sequence and an exciting way to start wrapping the film up.
To sum up, Ben-Hur is a mixed bag of a movie, varying from being mildly entertaining to predictable and boring. All the sets look cheap and plastic, and the storylines don't flow all that well together, but the performances aren't horrendous and there's some fun to be had, especially during the climactic chariot race.
2 1/2 Stars