“Ben-Hur” – Remakes. Hollywood seems to love remaking successful films. One can contemplate producers’ motivations, but generally speaking, my guess is the most obvious one: to see if lightning can strike twice in theatres. If done well, I am not - at all - opposed to remakes but am disappointed when the promised-second bolt of lightning turns out to be a dim glow from an unwanted lamp in an empty room.
Now, in 2016, director Timur Bekmambetov accepted the challenge to recreate “Ben-Hur”, 57 years after Charlton Heston starred in the title role. Bekmambetov cuts the runtime from 212 minutes to 124, and in this go-round, Jack Huston takes the lead as Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy Jewish Jerusalemite.
In roughly 28 A.D., the Romans enforce their strict rules in the city but do not generally conflict with the House of Hur. Judah (and his family) and the Roman soldiers figuratively and literally just pass one another in the streets without incident. Interestingly, Judah’s adopted brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell), is of Roman descent, and like the soldiers on the streets, the siblings have no conflict, and, in fact, love and care for one another.
This all changes due to a misunderstanding. Messala looks to his Roman blood rather than his adopted-family’s Jewish roots, and he condemns the Hurs and sends Judah to a worse fate.
The film’s clear story arc is Shakespearean in nature, and, naturally, the film follows Judah on his long quest back to Jerusalem and enact revenge on Messala. Although Bekmambetov’s film cut 1 hour and 28 minutes from the 1959 film’s runtime, this “Ben Hur” runs painfully slow and feels devoid of much drama.
The curious observation about the perceived tired pacing is that the script – takes an opposite approach in two places and - jams and stuffs so many plot points during its first 15 minutes and last 10 minutes. The establishing scenes are terribly rushed, so there is no real connection between the on-screen events and the audience, or at least with this audience member. Before one knows it – and can keep track of all of the players within the House of Hur – Judah is whisked off to a miserable assignment, and then toils on his sluggish ascent back to Jerusalem.
The hurried tempo during the final 10 minutes feels infinitely more egregious, as the film attempts to wrap up several extremely key Biblical moments during the last days of Christ in a footnote fashion. As a kid, I remember sitting through several (seemingly) endless and monotonous sermons during long, hot Sunday afternoons in my church, so – decades ago - I would have appreciated Bekmambetov’s rushed final 10 minutes. On the other hand, in “Ben-Hur”, they feel clumsy, tacked on and – surprisingly - completely unneeded.
Well, one moment that is needed is the chariot race. The film does check that box but encases the race in massive special effects and little fanfare. The actors grab the proverbial reins with four-horse teams and lead the charge around a circular arena, but the action seems forced, and faceless actors – other than the two leads – do not engender any dramatic tension.
I also found it difficult to decipher how and why various chariots crashed during the competition. Sometimes, wheels fell off, and on other occasions, horses sideswiped each other during a dusty mess. Luckily, Judah could hear repeated instructions from his “coach”, Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), however, I have no idea how this is humanly possible with 50,000 screaming CGI fans and rumbling ancient contraptions drowning out the sound throughout the entire Middle East, let alone the arena.
Well, there was not much sound emanating from me during my 2016 “Ben-Hur” experience, including snoring.
Quite frankly, I take a lot of pride in not falling asleep during this picture and will include it in my list of accomplishments this year. Perhaps, I should write a to-do list and remember to turn off that unwanted lamp in the empty room. (1.5/4 stars)