Directed by Timur Bekmambetov
Starring Jack Huston, Morgan Freeman, Toby Kebbell, Nazanin Boniadi, Rodrigo Santoro, Sofia Black D’Elia, Ayelet Zurer, Moisés Arias, Marwan Kenzari and Pilou Asbæk.
Judah Ben-Hur, a prince falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother, an officer in the Roman army, returns to his homeland after years at sea to seek revenge, but finds redemption.
There’s a sad redundancy to Timur Bekmambetov’s wholly inadequate, depressingly futile Ben-Hur. The story, trite for a literal lifetime, still plays trite, even with wholesale changes – characters are removed, back-stories reimagined – and that sense of grandeur so apparent in the Charlton Heston classic is lost amidst attempts at pandering at the meat-headed Fast and Furious audience (why exactly an exec didn’t demand for it to be called The Fast and the Ben-Hurious we will never know.)
Everything’s coming up Milhouse for Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a wealthy prince living in Roman-occupied Jerusalem. His adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell), returns from war-after a series of rather impressive flashbacks; Messala fights in rain, Messala fights in snow, Messala fights in sand-calling for his brother to maintain peace as Pontius Pilate (Pilous Asbaek) comes to town.
Judah, as self-righteous as anything, refuses, resulting in a zealot attempting and failing to assassinate Pilate. Judah is aptly sentenced to life as a slave while his family is presumed dead.
At a little over two hours, the film is a good 90 minutes shorter than the ’59 epic, yet plays as something far duller. Where few moments sparkle-a genuinely impressive battle montage, an expansive sequence on sea-most simply plod, padding for what ultimately leads to a somewhat tepid 10 minute race with little actual conflict.
It doesn’t help that Jack Huston’s Judah is played as a man of such infinite privilege; there’s a sense of relief during his descent to a slave. As a hero, he’s insipid, meat and potato, bread and butter, characterised not by any visible personality, instead-once in shackles-by his ability to look like an Armani model, all pout not bite.
As with – takes a deep, deep, deep breath – Fantastic Four, The Counselor, Wrath of the Titans, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Prince of Persia and RocknRolla, it’s on Toby Kebbell, seemingly forever on the cusp of genuine stardom, to inject actual charisma. Messala, even through a series of decisions defined by total idiocy, is still far easier to root for; his over-reaction to a failed assassination adds a layer of joyous Punch and Judy-lite villainy.
Thrills are few and far between, but Bekmambetov lends to them a surprising brutality. Cameras are seemingly dropped with little care to reflect the clear “danger” to stunts while bodies are throw, be it awkward, jarring CGI, or actually quite impressive, tough looking falls off horses, boats, etc.
It’s a shame then that the final race, at little over ten minutes, lacks any heft. Yes, there are impressive stunts and there’s a physicality that surprises, but a film with which its central relationship is pushed to the side in place of characters totally forgettable, ultimately struggles to rouse any emotional attachment.
Bekmambetov throws in Jesus spouting erroneous philosophical vignettes and Morgan Freeman, who for all the world looks as if he’s looking just past the camera at the catering table, in a vain attempt at adding misjudged weight to a film in dire need of shedding a few pounds.
The fundamental issue with Ben-Hur is its total redundancy. No one demanded it, it never had to exist. Yet it exists, and for a film that exists and will ultimately slip out of your mind within days, it’s passable. Rare moments impress and the final 15 minutes is more soap-opera melodrama than big budget blockbuster. See it alone for Freeman’s fancy-dress wig.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★