“Ben-Hur” is the fifth adaption of the 1880 novel and the first live-action version since the famous 1959 film starring Charlton Heston. Jack Huston takes over the titular role as a Jewish prince who is betrayed by his adoptive brother (Toby Kebbell) and forced into slavery for the Roman Empire. Morgan Freeman also stars as Timur Bekmambetov directs.
There really is no reason for this film to exist, but if this summer has taught us anything it’s that sequels and remakes will always be made, even if there is no demand or purpose for them. But hey, it’s directed by the man who gave us “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” stars a guy who is best known for a small supporting role in an HBO series and is from the writer of “Undercover Brother” (in John Ridley’s defense, he also wrote the overrated “12 Years a Slave”)! The studio gave this picture a $100 million budget, so surely they had faith in it, right? Well if that were the case, any and all faith was horribly misplaced.
“Ben-Hur” the novel has been praised for nearly 150 years for its story, and rightfully so. At this point there are cliffnotes of things we have seen in films before (brother vs brother, slave against empire, etc) but somehow this latest “Ben-Hur” manages to squash all those interesting and possibly emotionally investing storylines beneath sluggish pacing. It takes nearly an hour for anything of note to truly occur, and even then still nothing truly engaging happens until the chariot race in the film’s climax.
This falls on the shoulders of director Bekmambetov, who all too often lets scenes drag on. He also implements *way* too much use of handheld shakycam, and for a film with a $100 million he sure loves to use GoPros. There was a film earlier this year, “Risen,” that cost $20 million and was set during the same time period, 33 AD; that film wasn’t very good but that’s not my point. What I’m getting at is “Ben-Hur” looks no better than that film yet it cost $80 million more.
I genuinely have no idea what all that money went to, because it certainly wasn’t on stars. Jack Huston is serviceable in the main role but he doesn’t convey the brutality or at least rage that the character of Ben-Hur should feel towards his brother and the Romans. His face is too pretty and his voice too soft (except when he’s growling) to really be taken as a threat; it is a role designed for Russell Crowe. Toby Kebbell is fine but he needs to stick to motion capture; he was great in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and the bright spot of “Warcraft” but live action isn’t his thing. Morgan Freeman, the film’s only recognizable name to mainstream audiences, cashes a paycheck while wearing hilarious dreadlocks. That’s really all I can say about him.
A few moments are genuinely thrilling and there are a couple scenes that do make you feel for the characters, but these are quickly stomped out by Bekmambetov’s heavy-handed attempts to create an epic story but try and keep it personable at the same time. The film also falls victim to being too “Hollywood.” Prior to the chariot race, Huston cuts his long hair and scraggly beard with a knife; the next scene he has a trimmed, gelled hairstyle and clean 5 o’clock shadow. It is just lazy filmmaking.
There is nothing special or truly great about “Ben-Hur” and it just feels like every other generic sword-and-sandal ever made (I guess you could say we’ve “Ben-Hur, done that”). It is going to flop hard at the box office for a dozen reasons, and it being a bad film is just one of them. It is boring, a lot of the time ugly to look at and doesn’t have any charismatic or gripping characters to hold your hand along the way.
Critics Rating: 3/10