×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Ben-Hur’

A chariot race exciting enough to evoke the one from 1959 still isn't enough to justify a sludgy and scattershot remake.

With:
Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer.
Release Date:
Aug 19, 2016

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2638144/

When you watch the 1959 “Ben-Hur,” a studio classic so big and stodgy and literal that even the dialogue seems square-jawed, there’s something that tugs you right through the endless talk about high ideals and the birth of Christianity — and no, it’s not just the promise that after three hours, you’re going to get to see the chariot race to end all chariot races. It’s the presence of an actor who’s like an oak tree among twigs. As the title stud-slave, Charlton Heston projects a strength that’s brawny but internal — sturdiness resolved into muscle. He’s like a clenched Hollywood glamour god sculpted by Michelangelo. You’d think that this sort of gladiatorial hero worship would have gone out of style, but, of course, you’d be wrong. It’s alive and kicking in a movie like “Gladiator,” where Russell Crowe turns vengeance into a brooding art form, or in any of the “Mad Max” films, which are the real heirs to the ancient-world action epic.

But in the new “Ben-Hur,” when you watch the English actor Jack Huston take on the role of Judah Ben-Hur, the wealthy Jerusalem prince who is stripped, by the Romans, of his home and family and turned into a galley slave, you feel nothing primal in his presence. Huston, who comes from showbiz royalty (he’s the grandson of John Huston), isn’t a terrible actor, but he’s soft. He doesn’t pop. When he’s rowing, in chains, aboard that Roman war ship, he tells his captive comrades that they should no longer care, they should just survive — the kind of stoic advice you could imagine coming from Crowe’s Maximus. Yet when Huston says it, it sounds like a message from Unicef. With his hair grown girlishly long, and a beard to match, and eyes peering out in more sadness than anger, Huston’s Judah resembles no one so much as George Harrison on the cover of “All Things Must Pass.” He’s a slave who has turned himself into a doleful peacenik. Jesus Christ is a full-scale character in “Ben-Hur” (he’s played, with a minimum of heavenly aura, by Rodrigo Santoro), but you almost feel like the casting should have been flipped. Huston, who has a Christ-like beatitude (and physique), is way too saintly to be convincing as a guy who could drive four white horses with whip-tight reins and a sneer of death.

Minus a hero who has the macho charisma to wrap a movie around him like he owned it, the new “Ben-Hur” is an oddly lackluster affair: sludgy and plodding, photographed (by Oliver Wood) in nondescript medium close-up, an epic that feels like a mini-series served up in bits and pieces. Actually, there’s one sequence that’s better than that, and that’s the chariot race. The director, the Kazakh-born kinetic stylist Timur Bekmambetov, who made “Night Watch” (2006) and the American schlock-on-overdrive movies “Wanted” (2008) and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” (2012), stages it with some of the same lurchingly explosive instability of the original. Chariots spin around corners on one wheel, drivers get trampled to death, rows of horses fall like dominoes, and mounds of dirt spray at the camera like something out of a sputtering contempo battle sequence. The madly teetering ancient vehicles seem to be joining in the most violent ritual on earth. In 1959, though, this all looked like nothing less than the invention of speed. That’s why the “Ben-Hur” chariot race is one of the three or four sequences that gave birth to modern action cinema, the others being the crop-dusting sequence in “North by Northwest” (a movie released the same year) and the car chase in “Bullitt” (1968).

In the new “Ben-Hur,” we’re just watching a propulsive rerun, with Judah, his Jesus locks shorn for the race, now looking like Ben-Hur of Beverly Hills. His foe is Messala, his adoptive brother (in the Heston version, they were childhood friends), played by Toby Kebbell, who suggests a lean, glowering Tony Robbins in Roman bangs. He looks malicious enough that you wish the movie didn’t need to spend its first half laboriously setting up the estrangement between brothers. Messala storms off to stalk the world as an officer in the Roman Army, and when he returns, in red cape and copper breastplate, after five years of conquering battle, he’s a true believer, sniffing out zealots to snuff. Judah, though he tries to stake out the reasonable middle ground, maintains the classic rich-kid view: He doesn’t want anything about his society to change — because, as Huston plays it, his life is fine as is. (Maybe that’s what you project when you come from showbiz royalty.) He doesn’t want to rock the boat, and that’s why he ends up in the galley, rowing the boat.

When the fleet he’s forced to join is attacked by the Greek Navy, it’s a grabber of a sequence, staged from the slaves’ point of view, though the 3D mostly has the effect of enhancing how CGI-heavy it is. Judah is shipwrecked on a desert commune presided over by Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), who in his luxurious gray dreadlocks looks like a holy man. But really, he just wants to make money sponsoring entries in chariot races. How convenient for Judah. Freeman has a puckishness that momentarily wakes up the proceedings, but the movie can’t seem to sustain anything. Even after the high of the chariot race, it plunges back into slipshod soap opera, though with enough time to accent the Crucifixion.

The 1959 “Ben-Hur” was directed, by William Wyler, with a kind of fake classicism, and that was part of its cardboard studio-system majesty. It didn’t need to be subtle; it worked as mythological machismo. But the new “Ben-Hur” tries to “humanize” everything, starting with Huston’s overly moist Judah, and the result is that this story seems a lot less human than it did 57 years ago. It’s become a chariot of mire.

Film Review: 'Ben-Hur'

Reviewed at Paramount, New York, August 16, 2016. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 125 MIN.

Production: A Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer release of a Bazalevs, Lightworkers Media, Sean Daniel Productions production. Producers: Sean Daniel, Joni Levin, Duncan Henderson. Executive producers: Mark Burnett, Roma Downey, Keith Clarke, John Ridley, Jason F. Brown.

Crew: Directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Written by Keith Clarke, John Ridley. Camera (color, widescreen): Oliver Wood. Editor: Dody Dorn.  

With: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer.

More Film

  • Agustina San Martin Talks Cannes Special

    Agustina San Martin Talks Cannes Special Mention Winner ‘Monster God’

    CANNES – An exploration of the ramifications of God, “Monster God,” from Argentina’s Agustina San Martín, took a Special Mention – an effective runner’s up prize – on Saturday night at this year’s Cannes Film Festival short film competition. It’s not difficult to see why, especially when jury president Claire Denis own films’ power resists [...]

  • Atlantics

    Netflix Snags Worldwide Rights to Cannes Winners 'Atlantics,' 'I Lost My Body'

    Mati Diop’s feature directorial debut “Atlantics” and Jérémy Clapin’s animated favorite “I Lost My Body” have both been acquired by Netflix following wins at Cannes Film Festival. “Atlantics” was awarded the grand prix while “I Lost My Body” was voted the best film at the independent International Critics Week. The deals are for worldwide rights [...]

  • Stan Lee, left, and Keya Morgan

    Stan Lee's Former Business Manager Arrested on Elder Abuse Charges

    Stan Lee’s former business manager, Keya Morgan, was arrested in Arizona Saturday morning on an outstanding warrant from the Los Angeles Police Department. The LAPD’s Mike Lopez confirmed that the arrest warrant was for the following charges: one count of false imprisonment – elder adult; three counts of grand theft from elder or dependent adult, [...]

  • Moby attends the LA premiere of

    Moby Apologizes to Natalie Portman Over Book Controversy

    Moby has issued an apology of sorts after writing in his recently published memoir “Then It Fell Apart” that he dated Natalie Portman when she was 20 — a claim the actress refuted. “As some time has passed I’ve realized that many of the criticisms leveled at me regarding my inclusion of Natalie in Then [...]

  • Bong Joon-ho reacts after winning the

    Bong Joon-ho's 'Parasite' Wins the Palme d'Or at Cannes

    CANNES — The 72nd edition of the Cannes Film Festival wrapped with jury president Alejandro González Iñárritu announcing the group’s unanimous decision to award the Palme d’Or to South Korean director Bong Joon-ho for his sly, politically charged “Parasite.” Following last year’s win for humanistic Japanese drama “Shoplifters,” the well-reviewed Asian thriller represents the yin [...]

  • Invisible Life Brazilian Cinema

    Cannes Film Review: 'The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão'

    A “tropical melodrama” is how the marketing materials bill “The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão.” If that sounds about the most high-camp subgenre ever devised, Karim Aïnouz’s ravishing period saga lives up to the description — high emotion articulated with utmost sincerity and heady stylistic excess, all in the perspiring environs of midcentury Rio de [...]

  • Best Movies of Cannes 2019

    The 10 Best Movies of Cannes 2019

    The Cannes Film Festival is too rich an event to truly have an “off” year, but by the end of the 72nd edition, it was more or less universally acknowledged that the festival had regained a full-on, holy-moutaintop-of-art luster that was a bit lacking the year before. It helps, of course, to have headline-making movies [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content