Why is Hollywood serving up a new Ben-Hur? The answer may be because films with religious themes have been doing surprisingly well at the box office. Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, producers of The Bible, Son of God, and A.D. The Bible Continues, backed this version of Lew Wallace’s classic novel and they’ve scored success with their recent religious productions. However, Ben-Hur is a horse of a different color. Unlike Downey and Burnett’s other projects, Ben-Hur has not been targeting the church-going audience and instead has been leaning heavily on its action scenes to pique potential ticket buyers’ interest.
The new Ben-Hur finds Boardwalk Empire’s Jack Huston taking on the titular role played by Charlton Heston in the epic Oscar-winning 1959 swords and sandals film. The 2016 Ben-Hur cuts the running time in half and, as advertised, spends much of that running time moving from action set piece to action set piece. The film begins by establishing Prince Judah Ben-Hur as a decent man from a privileged family who loves his adopted brother, Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell). But Messala’s never felt completely embraced by the wealthy family that took him in and, wearing a heavy chip on his shoulder, leaves them behind to go fight for the Romans.
Messala eventually returns to Jerusalem as a well-respected general in the Roman army. After briefly catching up on what’s happened in the city since he left to fight alongside Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek), Messala in no uncertain terms lets Judah know he expects him to turn in the zealots who’ve been launching attacks against the Roman army. Judah refuses and attempts to make his brother understand why he can’t turn in his own people. The conflict between brothers escalates, Messala sides with the Romans against his family, and Judah is ultimately captured and forced into servitude as a galley slave for five years.
The hatred between the brothers drives the story, but once Judah makes his way back to Jerusalem the pace lets up as Judah trains for the much-anticipated showdown in the arena. When it finally arrives director Timur Bekmambetov (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Wanted) serves up an in-your-face spectacle complete with impressive chariot crashes, flailing hooves, and plenty of deaths. Mind you, the deaths are never gory as the PG-13 rating keeps blood and guts to a minimum.
Huston’s impressive in the lead role, making Judah a sympathetic figure who falls into the trap of becoming obsessed with exacting revenge. Kebbell’s underutilized as Messala, an unsympathetic, one-dimensional character whose motivations are glossed over. Morgan Freeman dons dreadlocks to play the wise owner of a traveling chariot race squad, or something of the sort, and it’s with his guidance and financial backing that Judah is allowed the opportunity to face off against his brother in the arena. Rodrigo Santoro shows up every so often as the peace-loving Jesus who calms the people of Jerusalem before ultimately being arrested and crucified.
This Ben-Hur is really for those who haven’t read the book or seen any of the other productions, including the 1959 film, based on Wallace’s novel. 2016’s Ben-Hur is more concerned with action than story, with supporting players given short shrift. When redemption does come for the central characters it feels both false and forced, as does the toned-down crucifixion scene that seems tacked as if an afterthought.
2016’s Ben-Hur is neither as epic or spectacular as the 1959 film, although the chariot race is nearly worth the price of a ticket. But, the keyword here is ‘nearly’.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images
Release Date: August 19, 2016
Running Time: 124 minutes