Cinema release: Ben-Hur

A remake of 1959’s Oscar-winning epic ‘Ben-Hur’ – itself a remake of a 1925 silent film of the same name – Timur Bekmambetov’s flashy 2016 telling is void of any of the heart, grit, and power that made the Charlton Heston original such a stand-out. Coming off more like a CliffsNotes edition where its primary plot points have been singled out, there’s little confined within the 2-hour running time to evoke excitement; least of all its underwhelming climactic chariot race which is being touted as the film’s major selling point.

Shaky cam work, modernised dialogue, and updated costumes are just some of the more contemporary approaches director Bekmambetov (‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’) and script writers Keith R. Clarke (‘The Way Back’) and John Ridley (’12 Years A Slave’) have implemented, and given what they have to work with, the performances of Jack Huston (as the titular Ben-Hur) and Toby Kebbell (as Roman villain Messala) come off as indifferent and lacking any of the gravitas Heston and Stephen Boyd brought to the respective roles previously.

For the uninitiated, the film tells of the rivalry that grows between Jewish nobleman Judah Ben-Hur (Huston) and his adopted brother Messala (Kebbell), an army officer, who accuses Ben-Hur of harbouring Zealots following an attack on the Roman army. With his family destroyed, an enslaved Judah breaks free from his galley slave existence and escapes to the comforts of chariot race entrepreneur Ilderim (an explicably dreadlocked Morgan Freeman), where he hones his skills – montage style no-less – to race Messala in an arena battle-to-the-death.

Despite the film’s overall simplistic plot it doesn’t feel all-together cohesive, and the inclusion of Rodrigo Santoro’s placid but ridiculously sexy Jesus comes off as more of stunt casting than a genuine story inclusion; and where the film ultimately decides to go with the predictable Jesus story is hardly organic in its execution.

Comparing 2016 ‘Ben-Hur’ to the original is going to be inevitable, and in doing-so this latest incarnation comes off even worse than it does had it been viewed on its own merits. Fans of the original best stay clear and those curious need not satisfy their inquisitiveness, ‘Ben-Hur’, despite its grand intentions, is further proof that if something ain’t broke – no matter how old – it doesn’t need fixing.

Director: Timur Bekmambetov

Cast: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman, Rodrigo Santoro

Classification: M (Mature Themes and Violence)

Review by Peter Gray

My rating: 1.5/5

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