BEN-HUR (Movie Review)

** out of ****
Rated PG-13

(for sequences of violence and disturbing images)
Released: August 19, 2016
Runtime: 124 minutes
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Starring: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Haluk Bilginer, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer, Morgan Freeman

The movie’s not good but the race sure is.

The 1959 film version of Ben-Hur set a record of 11 Academy Award wins including Best Picture (matched since by Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King), and its cornerstone chariot race became an instant classic. Any future cinematic iteration would carry the significant burden of living up to that iconic display.

I won’t say if Ben-Hur (2016)’s race equals or surpasses director William Wyler’s achievement (the two sequences are apples and oranges in many respects), but that thrilling showcase – which comes late in the film – is the only aspect to validate the existence of this fourth version of Lew Wallace’s late 19th Century novel “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” (there were also two silent film adaptations, a short in 1907 and the first feature in 1925). Other than that, the Ben-Hur of 2016 is a boring, shoddy slog to sit through.

Sort of a sword-and-sandal epic by the numbers, Ben-Hur plays less like a $100 million blockbuster and more like a TV miniseries that’s been edited down to a TV movie. Big sets and CGI digital effects can’t mask rugged, sloppy handheld camera work, a formulaic script made worse by choppy editing, and a mostly D-list cast.

The first hour bears little resemblance to the Charlton Heston Oscar-winner, and its narrative through-line is virtually non-existent. There’s a vague story arc at best, with episodic short bits of business pasted together through generic brotherly bonding, stock romance, battle scenes, and ambitions of glory. It’s not until the second hour, which intentionally builds up to the inevitable chariot race, that the plot has focus and drive. But even then, it’s almost entirely a bad, bland melodrama with lame dialogue from start to finish.

The pandering stamp of executive producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey is plastered all over this. With a creative ambition that stops at good sets and costumes, they’re the husband and wife team behind the successful History Channel series The Bible, known more for its safe, softball approach to dramatizing Scripture. Up until the chariot race, everything here just feels like filler.

There’s needless whitewashing of the lead role, too, with the very Caucasian Jack Huston (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) playing the very Jewish Judah Ben-Hur. At least Christian Bale was a savvy marketing choice as Moses in Exodus: Gods and Kings, but Huston brings neither distinction nor bankability to the title role. The rest of the ensemble is also cast largely for their good looks and low pay rates rather than their talents or charisma, and Rodrigo Santoro’s Christ cameos are reduced (by no fault of Santoro’s) to being a Sexy Jesus with clairvoyant zingers. Even Morgan Freeman – who’s playing a wise mentor with long cool dreads – can’t rescue this largely pedestrian effort.

But then there’s that chariot race, and boy is it a doozy in all the best ways. Director Timur Bekmambetov (of that other liberally-interpreted historical drama Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) offers up a high-speed gruesome spectacle punctuated by gratuitous carnage. The mini set pieces choreographed within the broader set piece are extremely inventive. They’re as inspired as the rest of the movie is rote.

This grisly, high-octane exhibition is exactly the kind of blood sport that the Roman hordes thirsted and cheered for. It may satiate too much to our own blood lust simply for the sake of entertainment (and yes, Maximus, we are entertained), but given the flatlined morality tale it’s overcompensating for, the excess is a welcome jolt to the senses. As the film’s lone selling point, that chariot race delivers. I’m not sure if it’s worth the price of admission on its own (although it sure is close), but at least it salvages your money and time.

Before it’s all over, Burnett and Downey give their Evangelical base the perfunctory Golgotha and Calvary highlights, but it’s such a rushed add-on that it doesn’t effectively resonate. Indeed, outside of the chariot race, nothing does.

Ben-Hur is the kind of movie that, as you watch it, you quickly find yourself thinking about other things, drifting off into mental to-do lists or random trains of thought, only to find yourself checking back in and realizing you haven’t missed a thing. It’s great that you don’t feel the least bit lost, but it’s a downer that you don’t even care.

3 thoughts on “BEN-HUR (Movie Review)

  1. Minor nitpick (because I care!): the 1907 version of Ben-Hur is only about 10-15 minutes, so it wouldn’t count as a “feature” by most definitions. There was also a miniseries in 2010 that was feature-length (about 3 hours if you omit the commercials), but I don’t believe TV projects of any length are considered “features” either.

    1. Nitpick appreciated! (And correction made.) I’d read a few references to the previous versions, none citing the first as a short, so I made an erroneous assumption.

      Also – there’s a 15 minute version of Ben-Hur?! :O

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