Overview: Another cinematic retelling of the classic Christian allegory. Paramount Pictures/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; 2016; Rated PG-13; 123 minutes.
A Pointless Pedigree: William Wyler’s Ben-Hur is not a masterpiece. I’m not entirely sure how or when that designation came about, but it’s a false one. Rather, the film is a big, silly epic that stages two all-time action set-pieces, contains a hint of homosexual subtext, and features an amusingly committed Charlton Heston performance, but whose greatest achievement is simply going three-and-a-half-hours without becoming boring. Still, it won eleven Oscars—a useless metric of quality, but one that only two other films share. Naturally, any attempt to dust off this piece of hallowed Hollywood ground and deliver it to a new generation would be met with pugios drawn. Such was the case this Friday, when the new Ben-Hur–courtesy of the man behind that Russian vampire film you probably saw the first 20 minutes of before passing out in a drunken stupor—was released to a predictably scathing critical reception en route to a quick death at the box office. As somebody who saw both films within the space of 24 hours, I’m here to say that the quality gap between the two isn’t quite as wide as you might have been led to believe.
At the very least, the plot is largely unchanged. Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is still cinema’s most singularly improbable Jewish prince, hilariously amicable in his attempt to be all things to all people, healing the battle wounds of political “zealots” even as he hobnobs with the Roman elite. It’s his refusal to betray the former to the latter—specifically his adopted brother Mesalla (Toby Kebbell), who is now a high ranking tribune—that sets the story in motion. For his obstinance, Mesalla sends Judah to the galleys, where he spends five years as a slave, all the while harboring a burning desire for revenge.
JesUGH: It’s as engaging as it was in the original, although in being shrunk from four hours to two the story has understandably lost some heft. What it hasn’t forgone is the key element that also keeps the 1959 version from greatness—not that this remake ever comes within in hailing distance of that. Namely, Jesus Christ, who shows up roughly every half an hour, grinding both films to a halt before he completely takes them over in their final stretches. This isn’t a religious objection on my part (I can watch Terrence Malick characters babble about a higher power for hours), but rather a narrative one. There’s absolutely no reason that a fictional story of what is, frankly, more than justified bloodlust needs a hint of redemption, except for the fact that, well… Christianity sells, and it sells well.
In the original film (which is actually technically a remake of a 1925 version, but let’s not get into that now), these messianic interruptions were both tedious and at odds with the general arc of Ben-Hur’s quest for revenge. If one could make an argument for the existence of this remake, it would be entirely based on its final two minutes or so, which take to heart the message of tolerance that the 1959 version preached but didn’t embody. Unfortunately, this overcompensation in the other direction has given us an ending that hilariously shrugs off everything that has transpired over the last two hours/eight years. “You kept my mother and sister in a filth infested broom closet for five years? Forget it! Let us race horses!” Nonsense.
TIMURRRRRRR *Tree falls*: Anyway, forget all that; you’re here for a chariot-race. I don’t think you can call Timur Bekmambetov (which, as it so happens, is also my wi-fi password) a good director, but he has quirks, and they provide a fair spot of fun. Overclocked, speed cranked action, bursts of Hardcore Henry go-pro, and random, cruddy DV inserts, Bekmambetov pulls out all his favorite tricks, united mostly by how fucking ugly and arhythmic they all are. Compare a frame of this film’s chariot race to that of the original (which featured an assist from an in-his-prime Sergio Leone) and it’s gonna come up lacking by any measure. Still, I got a kick out of it anyway, especially little grace notes like a wayward horse that runs into the stands or a Roman soldier who finds himself trampled because there’s no room left in the colosseum tunnels.
Overall: Just as the original can’t quite transcend just being solidly engaging, the best thing you can say about this remake is that it’s never less than painless. Still, I found some fun in the margins, and if you put aside your memories of Charlton Heston, you might too.
Featured Image: Paramount Pictures/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer