A Ben-Hur remake? Fine, sure. Why not? I like Rome. Swordplay, coliseums, crucifixions, bacchanals… I’ll take two, and with extra incest, please. I still remember my most intense college film professor joyfully swishing an imaginary sword across a lecture hall telling us to go see Gladiator, shouting “Men… in skirts!”
Point being, Roman epics don’t really get old, no matter how many of them I see. And Ben-Hur, specifically, is fine too. I mean, it’s not as if I have an intense attachment to a four-hour long Charlton Heston film from 60 years ago. Grr, you’re raping my grandpa’s childhood!
That said, if you’re going to remake an old Hollywood epic for the fourth or fifth or sixth time (depending on whether you count animated, direct-to-video efforts or television miniseries), I think a good baseline measurement of quality is that I should come out of it with some idea why you wanted to remake it.
With Timur Bekmambetov’s 2016 remake starring Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur, I honestly have no idea. It feels like a homework assignment barely turned in on time, the work of someone rushing to cover all of the bullet points in a Ben-Hur plot outline without taking apparent pleasure in any particular one. “Congratulations, you’ve fulfilled the minimum requirements of the assignment to a satisfactory degree. I award you a C+, and may we all now enjoy recess.”
Bekmambetov, you’ll remember, is the Russo-Kazakh director best known for Wanted. And say what you will about that film (…that the entire plot was based around a group of assassins taking kill orders from a sentient loom, say), it at least had style. Visual panache. Curving bullets and Morgan Freeman saying “motherf*cker.” Ben-Hur has Jack Huston riding around ancient Jerusalem on a white horse, wearing what looks suspiciously like a cable-knit sweater. For the first 20 minutes of the movie he looks like he’s in a soap commercial. He asks his love interest, Esther (played brow-furrowedly by Nazanin Boniadi) to dance at a party (on yet another chintzy set that looks like something they bought second hand from a telenovela), whispering “Come on, let’s create a scandal.” Bekmambetov, meanwhile, offers zero clues as to what that scandal might be. Does ancient Jerusalem ban dancing, Footloose style? Is she his sister? And if so, I thought the Romans were cool with that?
Morgan Freeman is there too, wearing a set of grey dreadlocks so ridiculous they would’ve been distracting in Men in Tights. He becomes something of a mentor to Judah, solemnly, somnolently delivering lines like “In the circus, there is no law.”
If only the rest of the film had been so unintentionally hilarious. Instead it’s just dull. The casting is bad. The costumes are bad. The sets look cheap. The acting is stiff. The action is alternately shaky and dim, and frequently both (yes, it’s 3D). It feels like they were working with a script inscribed on stone tablets, where trying to humanize the characters or make sense of the story at all would be a sin. “I am supposed to frown here! It is written!”
Now, there are good reasons why I might (might) want to watch a Ben-Hur remake. I’d love to see someone explore what a chariot race or a galley battle actually look like in practice. Those things are exciting! But Bekmambetov only seems interested in quoting imagery from previous versions. There’s the frowning on the chariot. There’s the grunting in the galley. There’s the mooning before Christ. It’s like Bekmambetov remembers what Charlton Heston was doing but not what the actual scene was about.
It’s especially obnoxious because some of this story is actually really interesting. Judah Ben-Hur (Huston) is a rich Judean from a prominent family with an adopted Roman brother named Messala (Toby Kebbell). Neither actors are particularly convincing or well-cast, though Kebbel does have a less obnoxious haircut. With his sensitive-guy fringe and constant chill bro smirk, Huston looks like he should be off at a bonfire somewhere crooning Jack Johnson tunes for all the ladies, your classic Bible times f*ckboi situaish. By contrast, moody Messala is bummed because he feels like he’ll never be accepted by his adopted family. This is based on a confusing scene that lasts maybe 35 seconds, so he runs off to join the Roman army. He’s gone for years, only to return to Judea with Pontius Pilate at his side when the zealots are makin’ trouble in the neighborhood.
Pilate, played by Pilou Asbaek (Euron Greyjoy in Game Of Thrones), the only one of these actors who seems well cast, wants to make a show of force (I think?), and really show these Jews who’s boss, by marching his legion through Jerusalem. Messala goes to Judah asking him to promise safe passage for the legion, which Judah does (sort of? I think?). But then, as Pilate and his standard bearer are marching beneath the walls of the Ben-Hur compound, Messalah by his side, a wounded zealot boy Judah had been harboring in his stable shoots an arrow at Pilate.
At this point, you might wonder why Judah doesn’t just give the kid up, seeing as how Judah didn’t seem to like him much in the first place, the kid disrespected his house and his charity, and to top it off, looks like some grimy mini-me version of Jonathan Davis from Korn with even grosser dreads (again, the production design here is spectacularly bad). Instead, Judah basically sacrifices himself and his family for the little freak on a leash and ends up getting sent off to the slave galleys. Slavery, battle, escape, yadda yadda yadda climactic chariot race, Christian stuff, the end.
Yet, the race isn’t climactic, just confusing. A chariot race movie could’ve been swell. But after watching Ben-Hur, I still have no idea what an actual chariot race entails, other than “some of the other guys crashed” and “there are no laws in the circus.” It’s like trying to watch a parade through a dirty window.
Morgan Freeman plays the wise mentor, as he increasingly always does, but his advice never makes much practical sense. Though he does offer a series of hot takes on the Empire, like “their excessive nature lines my purses.”
OH SNAP! I just checked with these sheep guts, and yep, that’s a burn.
There’s a message about Christian forgiveness weaved throughout and expanded at the end, but frankly, it was done better in Risen. As was the general depiction of Jesus. As were, come to think of it, the casting, the Roman battle scenes, Jerusalem, production design, and acting. In fact, if you’re thinking of seeing Ben-Hur, maybe just go rent Risen instead.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.