Ben-Hur Review

. All Judah wants is to maintain the peace and tranquility of his world - even while so many of [...]

Ben-Hur Movie Reviews (2016
(Photo: Paramount Pictures)

Short Version: Ben-Hur is going to be an exciting Netflix watch - but that's about it.

Ben-Hur takes us back into the novel inspired by biblical events, where we find Jerusalem nobleman Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) living a good enough life under the ever-present occupation of Roman legions. Judah has a nice home, and the company of his beautiful sister Tirzah (Sofia Black-D'Elia), loving mother Naomi (Ayelet Zurer), adopted Roman brother Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell) and even the woman he loves, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi). All Judah wants is to maintain the peace and tranquility of his world - even while so many of his fellow Jews are turning into anti-Roman "radicals," day by day.

When Messala leaves home to reclaim his family name serving in the Roman legion, Judah begins to feel his world coming apart. Years later, when Messala returns home safe, Judah begins to hope it's a sign of something better; but sadly it is not. Thanks to a young radical Judah sheltered, Messala is bound by his service to the cruel Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek) to crucify his adopted family, while throwing Judah into a life of slavery aboard a Roman warship. However, after five years of hell, fate smiles on Judah: a shipwreck lands him in the company of African merchant Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), who soon sees an opportunity in the haggard but spirited man. With a bit of guile, Ilderim arranges for Judah to have a chance at redemption: an epic chariot race with the chance to defeat the Romans' great champion: Messala.

Toby Kebbell in Ben-Hur
(Photo: Paramount Pictures)

If that plot summary sounds like the entire story, no apologies. As with any biblical-themed epic, the story of Ben-Hur is, by now, so well known that there are no spoilers left to spoil. That's the challenge for any modern adaptation as the filmmakers have to make the journey immensely worthwhile, since the destination is so well documented. Ben-Hur attempts to do just that, but only succeeds at creating a slow-burn character study that constantly teases us with an epic finale - except the finale, when it finally does arrive, isn't that epic at all.

The film was directed by Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) and it's clear that while he was going for the epic cinematic scope of the biblical epics of old, in reality, this modern Ben-Hur looks more like an episode of an HBO TV series. Everything is a boring set up of mid-range shots and standard angles, with little of it "cinematic" in any sense of the word. Even the chariot race finale seems rather mundane in terms of visual presentation, with rough-looking CGI and Go-Pro camera angles meant to make up for the lack of proper action sequencing. The 3D effect tries to be immersive, but is simply unnecessary, since most of the film consists of scenes of dialogue (only a sea battle sequence makes proper use of the format), and the shots and angles of the chariot race don't utilize the format nearly as well as they could have. If you're deciding on a version to see: go 2D.

Toby Kebbell and Jack Huston in Ben-Hur
(Photo: Paramount Pictures)

The script by Oscar-winner John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) and Keith R. Clarke (The Way Back) is actually the better part of the equation. As a biopic, Ben-Hur is economical and effective with the episodes of the protagonist's history that it chooses to highlight, as well as the thematic thread that is meant to connect those moments together. The screenwriters take the biblical story and manage to translate it into a modern parable for anyone (about anger and vengeance vs. love and forgiveness) without too much heavy-handedness. They also weave in smart biblical references and Easter eggs, sewing seeds along the way that actually payoff in the end. Unfortunately, Ben-Hur has been marketed so heavily as an action blockbuster that a good character study piece may yet and still disappoint the masses of viewers who grow impatient from the long wait to see some short action.

Jack Huston is best known as Richard, the sensitive, maimed-faced hitman from Boardwalk Empire, and in Ben-Hur, Huston definitely makes the case for himself as a leading actor. He gives the character of Ben-Hur much more depth and range than Charlton Heston's version from the 1959 movie, and carries each stage of Judah's complicated life journey equally well. Toby Kebbell (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Fantastic Four) continues to be a standout actor, though the film is not quite sure how much attention to give his version of Messala. One gets the impression that Kebbell is invested in a much bigger role than what we ultimately see onscreen.

Morgan Freeman in Ben-Hur 2016
(Photo: Paramount Pictures)

The real odd addition to the cast is Morgan Freeman as Ilderim: Freeman seems to be really phoning it in here, using a ridiculous silver-haired dreadlock wig and extravagant costumes to do the actual acting, while he walks and talks just like... Morgan Freeman. It's bizarre. Other cast members come and go with little to do but pace through the motions of the story; the only real standout is the recurring cameo by Rodrigo Santoro (300), playing a certain carpenter of Jerusalem with all these crazy ideas about love.

In the end, Ben-Hur is going to be an exciting Netflix watch - but that's about it. In terms of seeing it as a theatrical release, don't bother; the 2016 Olympics will provide better sporting thrills.

Grade: C

Ben-Hur is now in theaters (in 2D and 3D). It is 124 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images.