Review: BEN-HUR (2016) | Casey's Movie Mania | Movie Reviews, Features & Others

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Review: BEN-HUR (2016)

Review: BEN-HUR (2016)

In this 2016 remake of BEN-HUR, a prince named Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is falsely accused of treason by Messala (Toby Kebbell), his adopted brother-turned-Roman soldier. After enduring tough years as a slave, Ben-Hur seeks revenge by challenging him in the chariot race with the help of a trainer, Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman).

REVIEW: Lew Wallace's 1880 classic novel of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ were famously adapted for the big-screen features including the 1925 epic silent version and of course, the 1959 remake starring Charlton Heston as the title character. Directed by William Wyler, BEN-HUR was the most expensive Hollywood production ever made up to that time. But the huge investment paid off handsomely when the movie became a box-office hit and even won an astonishing 11 Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director, a record which later equalled by James Cameron's TITANIC in 1997 and Peter Jackson's THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING in 2003.

Now, you might think a beloved Oscar-winning classic like the 1959's BEN-HUR is good enough to be left alone. But five decades later, director Timur Bekmambetov is hired to direct a big-budget remake of BEN-HUR for today's generation. Best known for his works in his native Russia in NIGHT WATCH (2004) and its sequel DAY WATCH (2006) as well as two Hollywood features WANTED (2008) and ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER (2012), Bekmambetov seems like an odd choice to direct a historical epic like BEN-HUR. 

The good news is, he did manage to bring some of his technical expertises in the action department, such as the intense sea battle staged entirely within the interior of a ship and a particular riveting scene shot from a first person's point-of-view. The overall set design of this US$100-million production deserves some praise while Morgan Freeman, who shows up in the second half of the movie, delivers a decent support as the wise Sheik Ilderim.

Review: BEN-HUR (2016)

However, the 2016 remake of BEN-HUR suffers from Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley's hackneyed screenplay that feels like your standard-issue historical epic. Apart from Morgan Freeman's competent supporting performance, the rest of the actors fail to live up to their roles. The biggest problem here is Jack Huston, whose vacant eyes and bland expression portrayed in his lead role as Judah Ben-Hur, hardly strikes a chord for someone forced to endure a large ordeal from a wealthy prince to a depressed and vengeful slave. Then there is Toby Kebbell's Messala, whose character transition from a supportive half-brother to a power-hungry Roman soldier willing to betray his own family for personal gain, stumbles as a weak antagonist. Despite the story's potentially engaging theme of brotherhood and betrayal, the conflict shown between Ben-Hur and Messala doesn't cut deep enough. Not to mention their relationship, from true brothers to sworn enemies and vice versa is downright laughable, especially how their conflict conveniently resolved in the movie's unbelievably positive ending. Although the movie contains Christianity that addressed the theme of forgiveness (all scenes involved Rodrigo Santoro's performance as Jesus are omitted from the Malaysia cinema release due to religious sensitivity), the unexpected reunion between the two brothers induces cringe, complete with an awkwardly out-of-place Andra Day's pop ballad of "The Only Way Out". It sure feels contemporary, except that such mawkishness approach doesn't go well for a historical epic like BEN-HUR.

Finally, the chariot race. It was supposed to be the centrepiece of the movie. After all, most viewers who have seen the 1959 version would fondly remember the legendary 11-minute chariot race. Again, given Bekmambetov's background as an action director, it would be interesting how he choose to stage the scene. Even though the scene is staged with practical stunts, Oliver Wood's murky cinematography and Bekmambetov's penchant for shaky camerawork crippled most of the intensity.

An uninspired remake filled with bland cast and tepid screenplay, Timur Bekmambetov's big-budget version of BEN-HUR fails to spark enough interest that neither improves nor equals the previous classics.

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