Have you ever asked yourself what a Michael Bay remake of Ben Hur might look like? Probably not, but Timur Bekmambetov has now provided the world with a fair approximation of just such a monstrosity. I spent most of Ben Hur thinking about the film-within-a-film from last year’s Hail, Caesar!, wondering if the Coen Brothers had deliberately skewered this remake in advance by lifting the subtitle from Hur’s source material for their mise-en-abîme. If anything, I would’ve rather watched George Clooney ham his way through that fictional epic than sit through this Ben Hur. But, like Jack Huston chained to the bottom of a slave galley, sit I must. And sit I did. The results could hardly have been less pleasant if I had, in fact, been shackled to a bunch of sweaty dudes in a boat while getting hot tar poured on me.
Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, the 1880 novel by Lew Wallace, has been adapted for the stage and screen numerous times. Obviously I haven’t seen every version of the story, but I feel confident in saying this adaptation is likely to rank among the worst made thus far. At least it’s shorter than the 1959 Charlton Heston version, but it’s also significantly more boring. (While the Heston version is a lengthy proposition at 212 minutes, it somehow still manages to feel more concise than this latest iteration does at 124.) The shortened running time, presumably intended to placate 21st century attention spans, leads to a choppy narrative that strikes an odd balance between feeling both overwrought and haphazardly slapped together. It’s as though the filmmakers, torn between serving story or spectacle, attempt to favor both while failing to deliver either.
If the ’59 Hur, directed by William Wyler, doesn’t quite suit the tastes of modern audiences, it’s largely because the film is firmly a product of its times. So is this version, to an egregious fault. The film reads as though the producorial edict was to abbreviate in every way possible. Producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett have stated they decided to make this film because their teenage children were unaware of Wyler’s version — but they have done their kids, and audiences of all ages, a huge disservice. (My computer auto-corrected “Downey” to “Downer,” and I considered leaving it that way, as I usually know I’m in for a long night when I see this pair’s name in the credits.)
Were its ministerial mismanagement the film’s only sin, it might have been forgivable. However, it also disappoints in almost every other regard. Bekmambetov, whose early work with Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006) I enjoyed, has definitively jumped the shark with his vision of Ben Hur. (If you had asked me previously, I would’ve said he had already done so in 2012 with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, so this is indeed a bold declaration.) The script, penned by Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley, is so fixated on the famous chariot race that it forgets to build much of a story world beyond it, and that race is one of the most disappointing computer-generated catastrophes I’ve seen in some time.
The cast is similarly weak, with Toby Kebbell struggling to impart any depth to Hur’s adoptive brother and eventual adversary, Messala (a slight and completely unnecessary change to this relationship from other versions), and Jack Huston growling his way through a one-dimensional portrayal of Judah Ben Hur. Huston lacks the screen presence and charisma to carry off the role, so most of his performance comes across as a limited collection of scowls and grimaces with no emotional impact. Even Morgan Freeman can’t save the day in a competent, if uninspired, turn as the Nubian Sheikh who grants Hur his chance at revenge and redemption.
Ultimately, even if the cast had been exemplary, this film still would’ve failed abysmally — shoddy direction, a godawful script and misguided production saw to that — and Ben Hur’s crucifixion by critics and audiences has been well-deserved. As the summer blockbuster season draws to a close, we should all give thanks to our respective deities that we won’t have to deal with many big-budget abominations along the lines of Ben Hur for at least a few months. Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images
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