I must begin this review with a caveat: I have not seen the 1959 version of Ben-Hur, which won a record 11 Academy Awards (tied with Titanic and Return of the King for the all-time record), and so I have the luxury of not having to compare this ill-fated remake/reimagining to that film. And what an ill-fated effort this is, earning measly US$23.7 million at the international box office (to date) against a US$100 million budget. It has become the unfortunate poster child of a disappointing summer of blockbuster flops.
In my humble opinion, however, this new version of Ben-Hur is, for the most part, not bad. I was rooting for it to be good while expecting it to be horrible, but for the majority of the 123-minute running time, I found myself pleasantly surprised. Problems aside, this was a very watchable movie fuelled by excellent performances and a couple of spectacular sequences. Sadly — and I’ll get to this later — the ending was one of the worst of any movie I’ve seen in a very long time, and still leaves a very bad taste in my mouth.
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov, the Russian auteur who gave us Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (one of those films everyone hated but I loved), Ben-Hur retells the classic Biblical story of adoptive brothers Judah (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell), who go from best friends to mortal enemies against the backdrop of the Roman control of Jerusalem during the time of Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro). It’s an epic tale of brotherhood, betrayal and revenge, and of course — as it also stars Morgan Freeman — redemption.
As sceptical as I was, Ben-Hur managed to suck me in right from the get-go. Part of it is simply that it’s a great story, though much of the credit has to go to the two super-talented leads, Jack Huston and Tony Kebbell (who will always be Koba to me), who act the shit out of their roles to elevate the film above the quality of the writing. Their chemistry made their brotherhood and friendship believable, and I could see the torment in their eyes when fate tore them apart.
Then there’s the action, which was generally very exciting and well-executed. The highlights are a gut-wrenching sequence on the high seas, and of course the chariot race. Some may accuse those scenes of being too reliant on CGI, but I honestly thought they looked realistic enough to get a pass. Special mention goes to the long shots of landscapes and especially the chariot racing stadium, which have a tendency to look fake in other films but were close to perfect here. If there is a complaint, it’s that the editing was too choppy due to the need to maintain the PG-13 rating. It got so bad that a key moment in the race was lost amid the confusion (I know I wasn’t the only one because I heard two separate groups of people talking about the same thing immediately after the film). I hate it when films undercut themselves in this way.
Nonetheless, the core of Ben-Hur is solid, and if it weren’t for a bunch of nagging problems, the film could have been a contender for most underrated movie of the year. First off, the look of most of the characters don’t feel quite right. There’s just too much of a modern vibe, from their hairstyles to the costumes. And don’t even get me started on Morgan Freeman’s dreadlocks. It was the most visually jarring hairdo in cinema since Tom Hank’s abomination in The Da Vinci Code.
On top of that, the film has a few pacing issues. While it does not feel like a long movie, there are moments where the film sags because it wastes too much time on things that are unimportant. I can’t go into specifics without spoilers, so I’ll just leave it at that.
Finally, there’s that ending. Had the film ended 5 minutes earlier, I would have liked it a lot more. But they had to go and ruin it with a cop-out ending that totally undermined the emotional payoff the film had been building up to for 2 hours. I understand, with the heavy religious undertones (which I didn’t mind), that it was an attempt to deliver a final message. As well-intentioned as it may be, the ending came across as forced and unnecessary. Honestly, it would have been preferable had they just pretended the entire movie was just a dream. It wasn’t just the decision to end the movie in this way either. Even the final scene and song they chose to accompany it irked me — as Donald Trump would say — “bigly.”
On the whole, however, I would still say Ben-Hur is a better movie than I had anticipated. It’s hard to get the bad ending out of my head, but there are enough positives to this remake to render it not a complete waste of time. I’m glad I saw it despite the negative reviews.
3 stars out of 5