Saturday, August 20

Ben-Hur (2016) Review

Dir: Timur Bekmambetov
Starring: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Pilou Asbaek, and Morgan Freeman
124 Minutes
Paramount Pictures

“Ben-Hur” is a film that even the most casual filmgoer remembers. However, there are actually quite a few versions of "Ben-Hur" out, starting as early as a silent film in 1907, but the one everyone remembers is the 1959 Charlton Heston starring, William Wyler directed version. Reimagining this sword-and-sandals extravaganza seems more than just a daunting task, it seems like a foolish one. But in the current state of film nothing is sacred and there is nothing wrong with that. Today we have visionary directors who create amazing works of art, we have performers who bring stunning life to multifaceted characters, and we have technology that makes what used to take days easily happen at the push of the button. This logic makes a new, updated version of “Ben-Hur” seem completely reasonable; and with film icon Morgan Freeman and imaginative director Timur Bekmambetov, who made 2008’s “Wanted, involved it would seem like “Ben-Hur” is in good hands.  It would seem.

Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a Jewish prince living in a Roman-occupied Jerusalem. Judah is the much beloved son of his esteemed family, his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) however is looked down upon so he takes every opportunity to display his worth to the family. Messala leaves the family to become a soldier in the Roman army; Judah stays in Jerusalem and marries his beloved Esther (Nazanin Boniadi). Messala, becoming a hero, returns to Jerusalem to oversee Pontius Pilates (Pilou Asbaek) safe travels through the city. An incident occurs during the visit and Judah is accused of treason by Messala and banished into slavery. Judah waits years in slavery before returning to Jerusalem for revenge.

Mr. Bekmambetov knows his way around an action scene, dazzling and beautifully so throughout his catalog at times. The highlights of this film, and when it firmly stands on two feet, occur when the action takes over. The first-person perspective on board a sinking ship being rowed by whipped slaves is utter confusion and tension; its a grimy moment that introduces the journey towards revenge for Judah. The chariot race in the coliseum is frenzied mayhem, a dirt storm of trampled racers, stomping horses, and screaming onlookers. Its the culminating moment for Judah, a moment that should be both exhilarating and emotional, a moment that should signify the changes that Judah has encountered throughout his journey. These moments serve mostly as effects-laden distractions but in minuscule flashes you can see what Mr. Bekmambetov was reaching for, simply and boldly a film about revenge and redemption.

While Mr. Bekmambetov can construct great action scenes he has always struggled with the human elements. These extravagant moments of spectacle are devoid of any kind of emotional drama that would display the anger, grief, and confusion that divided two brothers and placed them in an arena where death is seemingly inescapable. In many other instances you can feel the struggling script grasping for any kind of emotion, whether the lopsided romantic relationships, the heavy handed moments of misguided religious movements that lack any sort of resonance, or the divisions pushed along that connect conflicts of the powerful and the seemingly powerless. It all ends up being a disordered mix of incomplete ideas.

“Ben-Hur” tries to be a film that offers the characteristics associated with revenge films while also providing qualities associated with redemptive moral tales. In small ways the film succeeds in displaying a journey punctuated by an awakening through faith. It also ends up being an uneven mess of themes punctuated by moments of emotionless action. Still, in the reboot film world, there is always hope that the next version of “Ben-Hur” will be better.

Monte’s Rating

2.00 out of 5.00

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