Ben-Hur (2016) / Adventure-Action
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images
Running Time: 124 min.
Cast: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman, Nazanin Bodiadi, Pilou Asbaek, Rodrigo Santoro, Sofia Black-D'Eia, Ayelet Zurer
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Screenplay: Keith R. Clarke, John Ridley
Review published August 21, 2016
It's a fair guess to surmise that the 2016 version of Ben-Hur is going to get about eleven less Academy Awards than its most notable predecessor from 1959, starring Charlton Heston, which would also take the Best Picture Oscar. This feels more like a b-movie attempt to dish out a less subtle, more action-oriented version of that story, which was originally written as a best-selling novel in 1880 by Lew Wallace as "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ", mixed with a faith-based parable of the Jesus effect in Jerusalem in which those of monotheistic faith would bide their time until the wretched polytheistic and brutal Roman Empire would eventually crumble, some centuries later. Not surprisingly, the film is executive produced by faith-based power player Roma Downey ("Touched by an Angel", Son of God), who've dressed up the film to be more of a religious parable than a tale of rip-roaring adventure.
After a brief opening in 33 A.D. that showcases the start of the big chariot race that will serve as the film's finale, no doubt thrown in there to let audiences know that the "good stuff" they've paid to see will be forthcoming after a great deal of semi-monotonous setup, we go back eight years to begin the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Huston, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), a wealthy Jewish prince living in Rome-occupied Jerusalem, as well as his strong competitive bond with his adopted Roman brother, Messala Severus (Kebbell, Warcraft), who will come to be his main adversary in that climactic race. However, that bond is put to the test when Messala becomes a centurion in the Roman military, eventually returning to Jerusalem as a captain entrusted to command the troops as Roman prefect to Judaea, Pontius Pilate, enters the city, which has been a trouble spot for Rome due to a faction of murderous zealots. When Judah refuses to name names to Messala prior to another eruption in Pilate's presence, he's convicted of sedition for the incident, effectively beginning his enslavement in the galley of a Roman warship, where he will presumably be shackled until he expires. The rest of the film concerns how Judah goes from that predicament to ultimately compete against his brother for guts and glory in the chariot race. Oh, and Jesus (Santoro, Jane Got a Gun) is in there somewhere too.
The pleasure of this update to Ben-Hur can be summed up in two key set pieces: the galley slave scenes in which the Judah and other shackled men must row for survival during a harrowing and explosive naval battle while on the Ionian Sea, and, of course, the chariot race in which all of the chips are put on the table for everyone involved, pending the outcome of the contest. That the action, when it is on the screen, is quite good probably will come as little surprise to those who've followed the career of Timur Bekmambetov, who has spent his entire career delivering such skillful CG-infused set pieces in low to mid-profile schlock like Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Unfortunately, one thing Bekmambetov isn't as keen on exploring is characterization and emotional subtext, merely seeing such things as what you must do in narrative filmmaking to get to the money-shot moments he really wants to explore once the dialogue drops away and he can just let everything rip for the audience to watch with mouths agape.
Whereas the 1959 version of Ben-Hur clocks in just fifteen minutes short of four hours in length, the 2016 telling is just a shade over two hours, which means it is going to be quite stripped down to tell its tale, which, knowing that the action set pieces are going to dominate for long stretches, means that most of the narrative has to take shortcuts in order to get all of the players and plot pieces in place for the more crowd-pleasing moments. Alas, as barebones as the plot may be, Bekmambetov's film is still quite slack in how it plays, with many scenes and characters seeming superfluous to the main events, including the entirety of Jesus' appearance, which only tangentially connects to the Ben-Hur saga, ostensibly kept in to please the faith-based financial backers of the story looking to reach out beyond those who are already in the fold, and continue to show Christianity in an appealing and positive light.
Despite some dynamic action set pieces, and the appearance of a poorly costumed and awkwardly coifed Morgan Freeman (who, truth be told, is becoming less rare in agreeing to make second-tier films these days), Ben-Hur feels like a low-rent attempt to make a grand-scale epic, with an attractive but largely bland cast, and hokey dialogue that only serves up the necessary expository information to keep the film's plot and themes at the forefront, while characterizations remain mainly one-dimensional. While the financiers have their own religious reasons for making the film, Bekmambetov knows that the selling point of the film is the chariot race. That centerpiece, even with a bit of obvious CG and a monumentally dumb plot element involving Freeman's mentor character miraculously able to coach Judah from the sidelines of an arena filled with thousands of screaming spectators while chariots and horses thunderously speed around a massive coliseum, is still a show-stopper. I suppose that how much you ultimately come away enjoying Ben-Hur may likely be tied to how much mediocrity you're willing to sit through in order to get there.
©2016 Vince Leo