Ben-Hur review: God, they put Morgan Freeman in a Bob Marley wig
The biggest problem with this film is not its obvious pointlessness (was anyone really asking for another Ben-Hur?) – but its complete failure in all storytelling departments.movie reviews Updated: Aug 19, 2016 16:00 IST
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Cast: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman
If you think about it, Ben-Hur is a remake of a remake that also happens to be a prime example of Hollywood whitewashing, and another addition in a growing list of religious-themed films. The only conceivable way they could’ve made this already seedy combination worse is if they rented a Bob Marley wig and made Morgan Freeman wea…
They’ll waste no opportunity in telling whoever is listening that this Ben-Hur is not a remake, but rather, a reimagining of Lew Wallace’s classic novel. But it would be best if you were to ignore these claims immediately because not only is it undoubtedly a remake of Charlton Heston’s classic film, it is a particularly mediocre one at that.
You know the story: A Jewish nobelman (Ben-Hur) is sold into slavery by his adoptive Roman brother Messala. After spending years aboard a Roman vessel, surviving to the incessant sounds of beating drums, he is saved by a Sheikh (Morgan Freeman) who urges him to take his revenge not with violence (Jesus keeps making cameos) but in a chariot race.
The biggest problem with this film is not its obvious pointlessness (was anyone really asking for another Ben-Hur?) – but its complete failure in all storytelling departments. Very little in this film works and the journey to all the good bits is as painful as being crushed by a Roman chariot.
So let’s begin discussing the major players, shall we? We should start with Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley (12 Years a Slave). Only now is it beginning to make sense why 12 Years’ director Steve McQueen campaigned to have Ridley’s name removed from the credits of his film. According to him, the final film was so drastically rewritten by him that Ridley didn’t deserve to have his name up on the screen. Ridley infamously didn’t thank McQueen at his acceptance speech.
That story was my way of reasoning that John Ridley is in fact a scam artist. If his drafts were anywhere near as terrible as his work on Ben-Hur, McQueen is not to be blamed (although, in all fairness, he is not the only credited writer). Ironically, for a film that is riding – forgive the pun – on a chariot race set piece, it is paced slower than a snail with muscular dystrophy. No joke – it takes more than an hour for this film to kick into gear (it can’t be a coincidence that that is around the same time Morgan Freeman makes his appearance). For an act-and-a-half Ben-Hur is so dull and lifeless, it makes Ridley Scott’s similar Biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings look like a classic.
Next, the actors. There is no denying that Jack Huston (known mostly for his role in TV’s Boardwalk Empire) is a talented actor. But whether he has the charisma of a movie star is debatable. Simply put, he can’t summon half the screen presence required for a role this majestic. He needs to be Ben-Hur for God’s sake! Instead, he spends most of the movie either whispering (which isn’t always a bad thing) or hidden behind a thick beard, rendering his already muted expressions even more indecipherable. But Toby Kebbell, who plays his Roman ‘brother’ Messala, is as excellent as he always been – right from his days playing oddballs in Shane Meadows’ movies.
But finally, it must be said that Director Timur Bekmambetov is the biggest culprit of this pile-up (I will not stop with the car puns) as the driver of this jittery chariot. I like Bekmambetov’s movies, especially the early Russian vampire ones, but this is just a mess. It destroys all the goodwill his big Hollywood films – Wanted (brilliant) and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (not as goofy as it should’ve been) – built.
Bekmambetov has a gift for stylish action and stunning visuals, but he brought none of that here – in a film that was probably the ideal excuse to display his talents. Instead, his camera is mostly handheld, the pacing is off, the performances are uneven, the colours are muted and it looks like the whole thing has been shot from a distance, with long lenses.
Finally, let’s talk about that chariot scene. Honestly, there is no logical reason to endure an hour-and-a-half of toneless mumbling with the occasional loud bang just for the chariot scene. You can just watch the original on YouTube. And it’s not like anyone was realistically expecting this one to compare at all.
In the end, this Ben-Hur is exactly what it says on the tin: A remake of a remake, that is also a prime example of Hollywood whitewashing and another addition in the growing list of religious-themed films. Oh, and they put Morgan Freeman in a Bob Marley wig.
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