A remake of a stone-cold classic nobody wanted starring an actor few have heard of, directed by the guy behind Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter? It’s not hard to see where Ben-Hur 2016 went wrong, though honestly, it’s a shame the film isn’t more perversely awful, because as it stands, it’s something much worse – one of the most aggressively bland movies of the year.
Jewish nobleman Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and his adopted Roman brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) find themselves at odds after Messala returns from three years as a soldier and Ben-Hur ends up enslaved for apparently attempting to kill Ponitus Pilate (Pilou Asbæk). Naturally, it’ll all be settled in a climactic chariot race with Pilate watching front and center.
There’s not much worth in arguing against the undeniable power of the original Ben-Hur story, no matter your own religious persuasion, because it’s an epic tale with a sweep that even this feckless attempt can’t hide (against its lesser instincts, mind). Sadly, it’s the script, co-written by 12 Years A Slave’s John Ridley no less, combined with Timur Bekmambetov’s utterly pedestrian direction of the movie’s primarily dialogue-driven scenes, that drain so much interest out of those first two acts.
It’s such a slog getting to the meat of the matter that you may well have switched off long before things get interesting, when at around the half-way mark a preposterously dreadlocked Morgan Freeman shows up as a Nubian sheik who trains Ben-Hur for the focal chariot race. To Freeman’s credit, he gives the movie’s single genuinely decent performance, with almost all of the gravitas-laden dialogue emerging from his mouth. Huston isn’t bad as such, but merely forgettable and unavoidably inferior to Charlton Heston’s iconic portrayal. Why any studio would build a $100 million movie on his shoulders, no disrespect to him, is anyone’s guess (though just one of many questionable business decisions surrounding this film).
And what of the chariot race? The 10-minute sequence is basically the film’s highlight even if it’s hampered by poor visual effects (especially when a horse dives into the audience) and the woefully misguided move of littering tacky, ugly GoPro shots throughout the scene. It lacks the overall visceral impact of the beloved 1959 scene, and such is the difficult-to-dispute trade-off of greater safety precautions in a post-CGI age.
When it finally grinds to a halt after 123 soul-sapping minutes – feeling decidedly longer than the previous movie’s 212, no less – the most prevalent feeling is simply, “Why?” Clearly, someone thought that this story was too elemental to screw up, yet even the undemanding Bible Belt crowd didn’t bite. It’s not the summer’s worst movie, but it might be its most dull.
Ben-Hur is in cinemas now