Directed by: Timur Bekmambetov – Starring: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer, Morgan Freeman
If you’ve seen the posters for this remake of the oft-told epic tale, you’ve probably realised it’s more hotties and horses than swords and sandals. Actually, you may well have seen the movie before you read this review, as embargoes were enforced until the morning of the first previews. Either way, it is obvious from the off that what they are going for is not Charlton Heston/MGM biblical epic, but rather a sexy take on the idea!
Jack Houston steps into Heston’s rather large sandals here, as Judah Ben-Hur (yes the title is his surname and not his first name). Well, I say sandals, but in reality he spends a lot of the movie in funky boots, and both he and Kebbell, as his adopted brother, Messala, look like they’ve stepped out of a Bon Jovi video circa 2000.
Questionable accuracy of fashions aside, if you haven’t seen any of the other versions, or read the 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, by Lew Wallace, which inspired this, it follows Jewish nobleman, Judah, who finds himself sold into slavery, after his adopted brother, Messala, rises through the ranks in the Roman Army.
Separated from his family, he is forced to work as a rower in a galley, but after several years, he manages to escape. Exhausted, he is found by Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), who initially plans to turn him in. However, after seeing Judah’s rapport and skill with his horses, the chariot-racing team owner brings him into the fold. With Messala, Judah is also a renowned chariot racer, and with a big event beckoning, Judah sees a chance for revenge on his former brother, and vows to beat him in the arena.
Of course, this being a New Testament biblical tale, there’s more to it than that, but let’s be honest, every single version of this story is all about the chariot-race, which is the big centrepiece of the tale. Here it runs to around 10 minutes, and it is visceral, breathtaking and exciting – albeit incredibly heavily CGI’d. It is a fun watch though, which is good, as prior to this, we have had some rather wordy scenes with people discussing politics, religion, the rights and wrongs of slavery etc etc. Basically, it gets rather preachy. Other than being set some 2,000-odd years ago, they could just as easily be discussing world politics today.
Houston lacks the stoicism of Heston, but looks great even as a slave! Despite years of beatings and toil, he is as tanned as ever, and sporting even longer rock-star hair! OK, I appreciate that may sound a bit glib, but the focus seems very much on making him look good, rather than garnering a great performance, which is a shame, as when he has some heavier scenes he acquits himself well.
Kebbell seems to relish playing the bad guy, and sneers his way through the movie. His Messala is actually a more rounded character than Judah, which is ironic, given that he is a supporting role. Rodrigo Santoro is the most ridiculously good-looking Jesus ever! I could comment on his performance, but again, it is pretty much about looking good, while healing the sick and stuff.
To be fair, a drama of this magnitude is a hard sell to a contemporary audience, and I can see what the filmmakers were going for. It looks fantastic, with lots of wonderful cinematography, and the soundtrack carries you along with the action. At just about 2 hours, it is just over half as long as Heston’s 1959 offering (which was a truly epic 3.5 hours long) making it more accessible to the average viewer.
It is well-intentioned, but unfortunately, fails to find any sort of balance. It veers between wanting to be an action adventure, to trying to preach about the rights and wrongs of society, and faith and family.
This entertains in parts, but drags heavily in others, and the visuals are probably the main thing that saves it. Thanks to the faith-heavy dialogue, this is the kind of film you really have to be in the mood for. Somewhat undeserving of the completely scathing reviews it has received, this is not totally unenjoyable, but is just too hit-and-miss to engage a viewer fully throughout.
In cinemas now!