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.