Remakes. Ugh. I hate them. Somebody just drive a stake through Hollywood’s scriptwriters’ hearts and be done with it! In yet another dismal remake/re-imaging of a great iconic movie, all subtlety and rich storytelling is thrown out the window in favor for smash-cuts, fast-paced time-jumps, and dialogue that is laughably dumbed-down. Welcome to 2016!
Director Timur Bekmambetov (the fast-paced Wanted and horrible Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) decided that the epic tale of Ben-Hur needed something more than the perfect 1959 version that garnered 11 Academy Awards. What was it? A new and boring story! We start with rich Jewish Prince Judah Ben-hur (Jack Huston) and his adopted Roman brother, Messala Severus (Tony Kebbell). Brotherly love only goes so far and Messala leaves home to ‘find himself’ in the Roman army and is soon made Captain under the hand of Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek).
But Judah and his new wife, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) have got serious prob’s. A young Jewish zealot tries to assassinate Pilate while he’s parading through Jerusalem and Messala, now all uppity and drunk with power, sends his bro to the slave ships in retribution. Judah spends five years on board, and it ain’t no Disney Cruise, that’s for sure! Looking like a long-haired and bearded hermit, Judah is the lone survivor after a horrific sea battle and washes up on shore of Sheik IIderim’s (Morgan Freeman sporting long gray dreadlocks) encampment. Seems the sheik’s a horse breeder that has four white beauties that will race in the great Roman Circus.
Judah, naturally, ingratiates himself with the oh-so serious sheik and desperately wants to race Messala in the Circus and kill him in the process. Cue the training montage and Judah learning the finer points of chariot racing. But after learning that his mom and sister were secreted away in a prison and have leprosy, his hatred is doubled for his bro. The penulti- mate chariot race is amazing and filled with ghastly horse and human destruction. Yeah, even the CGI made me wince! Anyway, Messala is crippled, but doesn’t die and Judah find ultimate redemption and personal forgiveness in the one man that he’s seen about town for years: Jesus of Nazareth (Rodrigo Santoro). Why is it Jesus and everyone else are always British?
The ending, while spiritual and somewhat uplifting, is tacked on, forced, and riddled with plot holes. I suppose screenwriters Keith Clarke (a bunch of documentaries) and John Ridley (12 Years A Slave) wanted to put a twist on the glorious, iconic Hollywood 1959 movie and pay tribute to it, but in doing so, only made their version more ludicrous and stilted. Nice that they gave Jesus more screen time than its predecessor and that chariot race is thrilling and all, but the rest is completely void of humor, and has ridiculous dialoge and lame (snooze) acting. You just can’t improve on perfection! (*cough* Ghostbusters *cough*). Seriously, what were they thinking?
The original screenplay written by Clarke was based on the 1880 novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, which is a religious book, and then Ridley came in to ‘polish it up’ at the studio’s request. Hence, you have a movie mash-up that is part religious faith-based and part Jewish/Roman slavery and murder primer that goes nowhere. This, coupled with actors that all look like they came from General Hospital or some soap opera, and it’s practically a recipe for failure. The ONLY redeeming value is that fast ‘n’ furious Circus race. That was impressive and shot with CG and practical effects. You want to see the real deal? Rent or buy the 1959 original. Why? See below!
The original and STILL the best! No CGI, no ‘pretty boy’ actors, no half-ass plot, just pure old school Hollywood script writing and film-making back when it mattered. You want the best? Then look no further than the epic William Wyler film that nabbed a jaw-dropping eleven Academy Awards and cemented Charlton Heston as Hollywood’s golden child.
In 26 AD, a wealthy prince and merchant, Judah Ben-hur (Heston), lives the sweet life in Jerusalem with his mom and sister. His childhood BFF, Messala (Stephen Boyd), has been bumped to a powerful Roman tribune and commander of a Roman garrison. While ego-crazy Messala believes in the glory of Rome and is power-hungry, Judah is a homebody and believes in the freedom of his Jewish people. Already there’s tension between them.
During a parade for Gratus, the new governor, some roof tiles fall off Judah’s home and spook Gratus’ horse, throwing him off and nearly killing him. Sure, it was an accident, but Messala seizes the opportunity for some payback and has Judah condemned to be a slave and imprisons his mom and sister! What a Roman dick! Judah naturally swears revenge and, as luck would have it, gets it… but it takes years.
Judah’s tenure on the slave ships proves providential, as he saves the commander, Roman Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) from death. Impressed and grateful, Arrius makes Judah his son, learns the Roman way, even becomes one helluva charioteer, winning race after race. His prowess with the horse and chariot catches the eye of super-wealthy Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith), who gets Judah to race in the mammoth Roman Coliseum AND against Messala! Judah beats him and learns at Messala’s death-bed that his mom and sister are now lepers! Oh no!
BUT! Judah has heard of a certain prophet named Jesus from Nazareth that has performed miracles, so he tries to find him, but Jesus has been put on trial for claiming to be the Son of God! With time running out, his last chance to save his family is to see Jesus at his crucifixion. Will his search be rewarded? Will Judah’s mom and sister be cured? Will Judah have HIS faith restored?
Clocking in at 212 minutes, this blockbuster holds your attention with every minute, thanks to a beautiful and thrilling screenplay by Karl Tunberg. A colossal budget, massive sets (no CGI here, people), thousands of extras, a stirring soundtrack, a chariot race that has to be seen to be believed, and awesome acting make this religious movie more than the sum total of its parts. Director Wyler directed the hell outta this film, leaving his mark like no other. It’s simply magnificent on SO many levels, I could lavish praise for another twenty paragraphs. Forget the remake and rent… I mean, BUY this original!