In a summer filled with mostly mediocre movies…
…one champion rises from the ashes to save us all…
…and his name…
…is Benjamin Hur.
Nope, just kidding. Ben-Hur isn’t good. It could have been. Conceivably. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. came out in the late August dead zone last year, and no one thought “Hey, I bet that reboot of that series from the ’60s that literally no one in the history of ever asked for will be unexpectedly delightful,” but then it was. But lo: You thought Ben-Hur would probably be bad, because the trailers are, and it is.
That said, my bar’s been worn down pretty low by This Year In Movies, and here’s something Ben-Hur has going for it: There’s no portal in the sky with a swirling vortex of trash around it. Ben-Hur is not even close to the worst movie of the year. It is entirely too unmemorable for that. It is a very decent keep-on-HBO-in-the-background-while-you’re-cleaning-house type movie.
Jack Huston, one of the breakout stars of Broadwalk Empire who proceeded to get fuck all in decent movie offers, despite the fact that you’d think he’d have nepotism on his side, BEING A HUSTON, steps into Chuck Heston’s sword ‘n’ sandals as Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince betrayed and consigned to slavery by his Roman adoptive brother Messala (Toby Kebbel). The movie is very clear about them being brothers, so #nohomo, though Messala can still want to bone down on Ben-Hur’s sister (Sofia Black-D’Elia), so… that’s a little weird. Anyway, you can never completely de-gay Ben-Hur, as much as executive producer Roma Downey may try. Even in this version, Messala’s second-in-command is clearly in love with him. Actor Marwan Kenzari, hit up my Twitter to confirm this. I know you know. Gay subtext in Ben-Hur: From my cold, dead hands.
The story goes pretty much where you remember it from the 1959 movie, though director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) has been very clear on the fact that his take is based on Lew Wallace’s book, not the other film, because
Paramount didn’t have the remake rights artistic integrity or something, I don’t know, it sounds better. Ben-Hur spends five years on a slave galley, after which he’s rescued by a horse trainer/gambler (Morgan Freeman) and goes back to Rome to fuck Messala’s shit up through the medium of chariot racing. Unlike the ‘59 movie, the ending here is pat, cheerful, and cheesy as fuck.
Here’s the thing: The story of Ben-Hur is sweeping and immensely compelling (Betrayal! Revenge! Rebellion!), Roman history is interesting as hell, and the actors on deck here are all very talented—aside from the ones mentioned above, there’s also Ayelet “VANESSSAAAAAAA” Zurer as Judah Ben-Hur’s mother. All that combined means that Bekmambetov and screenwriters Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley can never quiiiite fuck up the movie entirely, though they skate close to the edge more often than not. The performances are on-point, and the two major setpieces—the naval battle and the chariot race—are compelling, if a bit high on shiny, fake-looking CGI (the battle) and jittery, GoPro-enhanced camerawork (the race).
But in between the interesting bits, this Ben-Hur drags quite a bit. I place that blame squarely at the feet of Jesus.
In Ben-Hur, the story of Jesus runs parallel to that of Judah Ben-Hur, like a less-fun Life of Brian. In the ‘59 Ben-Hur, you never see Jesus’ face; he’s undoubtedly a key presence in the film, but that presence is somewhat vague, allowing viewers to bring their own thoughts on Jesus’ teachings. But this Ben-Hur is explicitly a faith-based film. And a preachy one. Literally. As in Rodrigo Santoro, who plays Jesus, pops up at various points to deliver clunky monologues like a Brazilian, neckbeard-sporting Forrest Gump. (So many people monologue in this. And flashbacks. So many pointless flashbacks.) It grinds the movie to a halt every time. And the values Rodrigo Jesus talks about—forgiveness, non-violence, brotherhood—are what the movie’s about anyway, so it’s not like we need Roma Downey hovering over our collective shoulders, poking us with her Bible and making sure we understand about the Jesusness.
I know. A Roma Downey movie isn’t particularly subtle about religion. I’m sure you’re shocked. The whole thing left me with the impression that Ben-Hur—a movie based on a book whose subtitle is “A Tale of the Christ”—would have been a much better film if they’d just axed the Jesus stuff entirely. I feel a bit heretical about it, but I’m an atheist, so that must just be sense memory from having grown up in the South.