I should say I have never seen the 1959 Academy Award winning epic ‘Ben-Hur’ with Charlton Heston so I can’t compare this remake to its source material. However I can say that I WILL be tracking it down to watch because I imagine it’s far more grander, powerful and heart-felt than this modern telling.
From the start we have our leads as rugged, youthful, sun-kissed soldiers and nobleman. Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell clearly are on the conveyor belt of historical epic character leads with their defining looks aiming to stir female audiences and appear as defining heroes and villains. Not the case, as bar the initial chemistry forged between these two, the rest of their screen time is pretty flat and they never “peak”, and even when they do it’s too little, too late. Their journey feels rushed to a far-stretched ending that I struggled to buy, and when you have to invest in Ben-Hur and Messala and who they are from the opening titles, it doesn’t make for engaging watching. Huston reminded me more of Jason Momoa’s Aquaman than some noble hero, and he lacks the star power or acting ability to be this legendary figure in a convincing manner.
Our supporting cast of unknowns do what you’d expect – weepy women and shouting men – meh – but Morgan Freeman? He just turns up as Morgan Freeman with dreads. He doesn’t need to act anymore; just lend his time and name to a film to try and make it something worth investing in. Of course, he’s Morgan Freeman so he’s likeable no matter what he does here, so at least it was entertaining watching him once he brings along a bit of mild fun to things with the chariot training.
And coming in at just under 2hrs, it feels more like 3hrs at times. I imagine the 3.5hrs of the 1959 film zips along quicker than this. It’s during the whole middle chunk of the film that the pace slips and very little really happens, it just feels like a cycle of people hiding, people plotting, people running, people shouting, people giving other people suspicious looks and repeat for a few new scenes. Once Ben-Hur becomes the slave, it takes a heck of a long time to get to the end it seems.
One thing I liked about this was setting the story in and around Jerusalem, purely for variety as it was a different change of pace and location than Rome or Athens where most of these historic films are set. The cliff-side city and mountain caves were refreshing to see, although we do get the CGI money-shot setting of the Roman Circus. Still, it’s better than another film with another coliseum as a climax piece.
The action is few and far between. Bar a few punches here and there, all we have to inject danger and excitement into this is the Roman galley assault which is, once again, refreshing to see in all its bleak and claustrophobic detail compared to the bright, vibrant scenes before it when all it happy in the world. After that, there’s not much else until we get to the chariot race which, seeing the original or not, you know is a stand-out piece of film-making for the 1950s and a real workshop of stunt work, practical effects, clever editing and miniature work.
Here, it’s a GoPro / shaky cam riot that fuses dodgy CGI horses and minimal practical effects to create a, what starts as a visually exciting race, to become a mildly thrilling but predictable race where we have no real shocks or surprises. Horses bolt, riders fall off, riders get run over…it’s all a little underwhelming for a set-piece that, quite frankly, feels like it’s taken a heck of a long time to reach before it’s over.
And in general the film feels very flat. It may look authentic in places, but it’s a CGI fest with flat characters who you don’t have enough time with to really understand their motives and backstories. Lots of details are skimmed over and rushed, and even the climax feels rushed which features none other than Jesus Christ who we even see fashioning a wooden table sporting a head of long black hair and a black beard, just in case it’s not clear who this person is spouting about love and peace and faith. At many times, this came across like a serious version of ‘Monty Python’s Life Of Brian’. I was waiting for Michael Palin or John Cleese to run out of a sun-baked building or march across as a Centurion and tell someone they “karking nicked!” or that Jesus “isn’t the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”
In the same vein as “300”, and even “Gods Of Egypt” and “Pompeii”, it’s the same old package re-dressed slightly. CGI visuals to bring awesome long-forgotten cities and spectacles to life, filled with over-done stories of good v evil and redemption and revenge with lots of gruff men and exotic looking women and old men training the hero to rise against an Empire. You know the stuff.
We even get another one of those quotes that all current historic films use to try and make it sound cool - "First to finish, last to die." Please.
It’s nothing new anymore, and this is a re-make that certainly didn’t need to be made in re-telling an already classic film and story to new generations. With this sort of production, they are not just going to care at all about Roman/Jewish faith, politics and religion with unknown actors populating CG cities with nothing “grand” or “epic” about them.