They remade Ben-Hur? Sure why not? With all the other bloody films being remade, let’s just do whatever films studios still have the rights to. Disclaimer, I haven’t seen the original (apart from the chariot sequence), but it’s usually seen as one of the biggest films of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Let’s see though, maybe it could be good.
Ben-Hur stars Jack Huston, Morgan Freeman, Toby Kebbell and Nazanin Bonaidi and is directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Based on the book from 1880, the film follows Judah Ben-Hur (Huston) who is betrayed by his Roman Soldier brother (Kebbell) and forced into slavery during the time of Jesus Christ.
I’ll start with what I did like. The film is split between several built sets and real-life wilderness. While it is very easy to spot the former, I really enjoyed the latter. Near the beginning we see a montage of Ben-Hur’s adoptive brother Messala’s army career, with him fighting in Germania and Gaul, through wheat-fields and falling snow. It reminded me of the opening of Gladiator, but sadly it’s only in the film for a limited amount of time. I also mostly enjoyed the chariot sequence. While it can’t hold a candle to the original (famous for the alarmingly high amount of injuries and near-death experiences on set) the destruction throughout has a nice crunch to it.
I’m also glad that a lot of the horse and chariot racing was done for real. Sure, horses being tripped and riders being thrown off or trampled are computer generated, but there are many scenes where Ben-Hur is learning to tilt his chariot onto one wheel or another where he jumps onto runaway horses, and it’s all done for real. Director Timur Bekmambetov stated he wanted to not rely on CGI unless it was heavily needed, so I applaud him for using it correctly rather than splashing out.
That’s not to say it hasn’t been used, and quite terribly. During Ben-Hur’s time as a Galley Slave, rowing ships for the Roman Navy, he looks out the portholes and see’s some truly awful looking ships. The previously mentioned chariot sequence (when it isn’t the real riders) is full of rubbery looking models unfit for the early 2000s. It’s a little bit sad when something goes from real-life stunts then to bad stand-ins.
The acting is mixed pot as well. Most of the cast is English or American (odd, since the film is meant to be set in Jerusalem). Jack Huston plays Judah Ben-Hur as a gruff, wooden character, breathing every other word like Kristen Stewart used to do back in Twilight. Toby Kebbell isn’t as charismatic as he was in Warcraft earlier this year (he was honestly the best part of that film), but his character is meant to be a nigh-emotionless killer so I’ll let it pass. The person I was most confused by was Morgan Freeman. While he is really good in the film, I was pulled out the experience by his inclusion. Everyone else is either relatively unknown or coming into their careers, so to have this huge actor in the film, is creates a divide. Bekmamtebov said he wanted the film to be global, hence his inclusion of Freeman. Alright, I’ll let it go. Morgan Freeman does draw in the crowds, since remaking a classic film is not usually a winner of box offices (it’s reportedly making a loss of $120 million).
The bit I found both unintentionally hilarious and odd was the inclusion of Jesus Christ. Jesus is in the original story (the subtitle is A Tale Of The Christ), but in the 1959 version, he’s usually off-screen, a higher presence that is alluded to but never truly shown. There is a line in the updated version which basically is, “This Jesus fellow is rather great, he’s just wonderful.” Now, I’m all for including whatever you want in a film, but it was just so funny how the line was presented in the film, it felt really out of place. That being said, Rodrigo Santoro, the actor who plays Jesus (who also played Xerxes from 300 and Karl from Love Actually, interesting fact), is actually giving a good performance and an interesting addition to the film.
In the end, Ben-Hur wasn’t as bad as I was thinking it was going to be. It’s an odd mix of Gladiator, Passion Of The Christ and Ben-Hur, but sadly with nothing really standout to warrant it being remade.
Score: 5/10 There are better movies to spend two and half hours with.