Several years ago on a Saturday Night Live episode hosted by Jerry Seinfeld, there was a game show sketch called “Stand Up and Win.” Adam Sandler was one of the contestants and answered almost every question with, “Who are the ad wizards who came up with this one?” That line pretty much sums up Director Timur Bekmambetov‘s remake of Ben-Hur.
Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a prince in Jerusalem as the Roman Empire is sweeping across the eastern hemisphere. His adopted brother, Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell), is a Roman from a disgraced family. While Judah treats Messala as a true brother, his mother, Naomi (Ayelet Zurer), never truly accepts him. Also, Messala is in love with Judah’s sister, Tirzah (Sofia Black-D’Elia), and he feels that he cannot truly win her if he has not proven himself worthy. So, Messala leaves to join the Roman army. Remaining in Jerusalem, Judah weds Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), a servant girl in his court. Jerusalem experiences prosperity, but the Romans continue to encroach and erode the freedoms the people have there. Finally, Messala returns and is welcomed back warmly by Judah and his family. When Messala asks Judah to help him uncover a rebellious element in Jerusalem, Judah will not help, unable to sell out any of his people. However, when there is an incident upon the arrival of Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek), Judah is held responsible and exiled from his country. Five years later, he manages to escape and makes the acquaintance of Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), a wealthy man who races chariots. Judah makes his way back home and heads for a showdown with Messala and the Romans, who have their own problems dealing with a certain carpenter named Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro).
The biggest question with Ben-Hur is: Why? Why was this movie even made? The original 1959 classic won the Oscar for Best Picture, so why remake a film that is already legendary? While the new Ben-Hur is a perfectly serviceable film, it never really justifies its own existence. Nothing in this film stands out and says, “Ah, this is why they made this one.” And that’s all this movie is: serviceable. I’m guessing that producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett wanted to recreate Ben-Hur for a modern audience, but when the story is set in biblical times, there really is no need to spruce it up, unless you’re going to improve upon the climactic chariot race. So, did they? Not really. The cuts are so quick and the action so fast, you can barely tell what’s going on, so to quote John Candy’s Delirious, “You can’t even do that right, can you, son?” This isn’t to say that Ben-Hur is the worst movie of the year or anything. It’s a decent enough film, it’s just that it has an Oscar-winning pedigree and this film is far from an Oscar winner. The screenplay by Keith R. Clarke & John Ridley (a former Oscar winner) is not that great. Characters are constantly spouting dialogue that is so obvious and feels like they are simply explaining to the audience how they are acting instead of showing it through the performance. Also, the film feels very rushed. The original Ben-Hur was three-and-a-half hours and this new one is just over two. That’s a much more condensed space in which to tell the same story. Judah goes from frail former slave to chariot racer in, like, five minutes. In the film, it literally looks like he learns how to do it in less than a day. Absurd elements like that really took me out of the film. And, of course, in the end, the story isn’t really even about Ben-Hur, but instead it’s about Jesus, Ben-Hur’s story is just to show Jesus’ teachings brought to life. That’s all well and good, but the ending didn’t ring true to me at all.
The cast does a decent job with what they’re given, but no one really stands out. Huston is a good enough lead as Judah, but pretty much all the characters are underwritten, so there’s really nothing for anyone to sink their teeth into. Kebbell is good as Messala, but he excels at playing antagonists. It’s just kind of sad that his best-written part was as an ape. Freeman is essentially playing a combination of his part in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Oliver Reed‘s role in Gladiator. The ladies also are not given enough to do to really do them any justice, which is unfortunate, because making them more of a focal point could have made this remake actually worth seeing.
Overall, Ben-Hur just isn’t worth your time. It’s a decent enough film to watch on cable down the line, but it’s definitely not worth seeing in theaters and for God’s sake, if you do decide to see it, DO NOT see it in 3D – it’s worthless. If you really need to see this film, just stick with the original.