Before we get started, quick note for you all. I’ve never seen the original BEN-HUR (1959). Yeah, yeah, I know. Charlton Heston is the king, cinematic Oscar-winning marvel, get off my back! Onward to its remake that… I don’t think anyone asked for… which has an early rating of 4.7/10 on IMDb and a 29% on RottenTomatoes (both as of 8/18/2016).
This film stars Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, and Morgan Freeman. Huston has never really been a leading man outside the film POSTUMOUS (2014), which was not a very popular film and a critic consensus doesn’t even exist for it on RottenTomatoes. But he has had a respectable bout on the TV show BOARDWALK EMPIRE. So… it could swing both ways. Kebbell will be remembered from his unfortunate turn in FANT4STIC, but he’s done some wonderful mocap work on WARCRAFT (2016) and DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014). Maybe that’s where his real talent lies. As for Freeman… well, if this man needs an introduction, you need to stop reading my review and watch some movies.
Crew. Directing is Timur Bekmambetov, who’s previous films include the popular WANTED (2008), which I really liked, and the easily forgotten ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, which I did not see. No opinion about this man, so onward. Co-writing the script, we have Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley. Clarke doesn’t have a lot of film credits to his name other than THE WAY BACK (2010). Everything else is TV documentaries. Ridley, however, previously wrote 12 YEARS A SLAVE, which he won an Oscar for (best screenplay), and has a lot of TV credits under his belt, like AMERICAN CRIME, the head writer on THE WANDA SYKES SHOW. My favorite thing that he’s written was on JUSTICE LEAGUE, having written a couple episodes, one of them being the three-part episode “Starcrossed.” Suddenly, I’m frightened because clearly there’s at least one talented writer here. How did it curve-ball so horridly? The music is by Marco Beltrami. His last film was the popular THE SHALLOWS (2016), which I loved, and has also previously done all four Scream movies, 3:10 TO YUMA (2007), THE WOLVERINE (2013), and a ton more… including some stinkers like this year’s GOD’S OF EGYPT, HITMAN: AGENT 47 (2015), and FANT4STIC. Final fun crew member is the director of photography, Oliver Wood, who’s done some awesome movies like the first three Bourne films, THE OTHER GUYS (2010), and FACE/OFF (1997). But he’s also been the DP of some films that I really do not like or are horrible, including this year’s BROTHERS GRIMSBY, THE ADVENTURES OF PLUTO NASH (2002), and a few too many of Will Ferrell’s lesser movies.
I’m walking into this film with the lowest of expectations. Let’s see how bad it is. This is my honest opinion of BEN-HUR (2016).
Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell) are not blood brothers (Messala was adopted), but have been raised together and are very close. But Messala feels that because he isn’t blood, he has to earn his place in the family. Choosing a life of a Roman soldier to pay back his family, he leaves for three years. He returns as a respected soldier to welcoming arms. But he’s not back for a family reunion. He’s back to find slaves that have taken up arms against their Roman oppressors, but Judah being a pacifist doesn’t condone any violence, but still agrees to talk to his people to keep the peace. But after a rebel attacks and kills a soldier, Judah and his family are blamed. Judah’s family is taken away and he is sentenced to a life as a slave aboard a war ship. Five years later, he’s grown only to hate the Romans and after his ship is attacked and sunk, Judah washes ashore and is met by the Nubian sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman) who agrees to enter Judah in a chariot race against his brother for revenge.
UPDATE: I fully acknowledge now that there have actually been several film adaptations of the original book that they’re all based on, so ’59 BEN-HUR isn’t technically the “original,” it’s just the most famous adaptation, and the one everyone remembers when you say the title.
You wouldn’t guess this from the summary, but I basically gave away about two-thirds of the movie. I don’t think that’s a good thing when the plot kicks off when there’s only a half hour left in the movie. Although, from the looks of it, the story is just a watered down version of what’s already out there.
Alright, so right off the bat, the first ten to fifteen minutes were unnecessary. Yeah, the story opens on a flashforward of the inevitable chariot race. Then we cut to eight years ago with the brothers being close and racing horses. Judah’s horse trips and he’s gravely injured as Messala grabs Judah and takes him home for treatment. Concern and everything, it’s all great. Of course, Judah’s fine and then we immediately cut to a party.
First of all, the editing is so bad, it boggled me. Yeah, you know a movie is bad when I, someone who isn’t trained to spot good or bad editing, can spot bad editing! There’s no real transition between scenes. It’s just quick sketches that pass themselves off to be scenes, and then they end and move on to the next one. Second, this was about the clumsiest damn introduction to these characters’ past lives together. Why did Judah need to fall off his horse and get injured. It’s not like his injuries play a part in story. The story could have easily re-worked itself showing that they are competitive and then talk about that party scene that’s going to happen in a few short minutes. Instead, Judah gets hurt, Messala feels bad, PARTY TIME, BITCHES!!! Third of all, this opening playful race they have is narrated by Freeman. Is this a bad thing? Not in of itself. What’s bad is that he specifically states their names and background information to us as if the movie itself wasn’t going to tell us over and fucking over again anyway. The whole plot practically kicks off with this information anyway. Even budget children’s movies have more dignity than that. Maybe that’s the cardinal sin of this movie: sucking out the dignity that Freeman always brings to a movie. I will contemplate this notion.
The rest of the story doesn’t exactly fare any better. This party scene I mentioned? First of all, I’m not even entirely sure what it was about. But whatever, I can forgive my lack of paying attention if the movie would explain why Messala is such a downer about his upbringing. He goes off to join the Roman army because he wants to prove himself to his family. If you’re already familiar with the story, then please remember before telling me that this is true to his character and that he’s always felt this way, then why the hell aren’t we given the proper introduction to him in this movie?! This mentality of his kind of comes out of nowhere. The mom being snappish toward him when Judah was brought home injured? Christ, I registered that as simply a pissed off mother toward her reckless children. I never got the sense that he was in any way alienated, so he just appears to be a cry baby.
Jesus. No, that wasn’t a curse. I really mean the man, Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro), who just sort of shows up and then leaves the story at different intervals. What an awkward character to put in the movie. I know he probably has some deep and meaningful significance to the original novel and even the ’59 movie, but… shit, he felt like a half-baked mentor that had a grand total of ten minutes worth of screen time in this two hour flick. If he was supposed to provide a moral or whatever, I didn’t catch it. Why? Because for a guy playing JESUS CHRIST, I didn’t much care about what he had to say. I think the little kid from this year’s YOUNG MESSIAH was a better Jesus than Santoro (no offense dude, – I don’t blame you, I blame bad writing).
Messala’s betrayal also seems to come out of nowhere, as well as the punishment he issues toward his family. I know that he’s supposed to be of Roman descent, but we never really see him develop his connection to the Roman people. Is it simply ambition? It’s never shown, so he just appears to be a dick. A cry baby dick. As you can tell, Messala isn’t a very compelling character to me.
And five years as a slave and it boils down to two scenes. Not even kidding. The very set of time that supposed to drive his hatred for his family home, is watered down to two damn scenes. Scene 1: Judah’s first day as a slave. Scene 2: Judah’s LAST FUCKING DAY AS A SLAVE!!! Holy crap, how are we supposed to feel sorry for this guy if we don’t know what exactly he’s been through? As far as the movie’s concerned, all he’s done in five years is row. Well… shit, guys, that doesn’t sound awful, considering that he’s rowing with other people. There’s worse enslavement out there and this movie doesn’t take any advantage of showing his struggles as a slave.
And what’s with the first-person moments? Yeah, there’s at least two random-as-fuck moments where we’re shown Judah’s perspective. Once with his head covered by a sack, and the other when he falls out of the ship as a slave. Um… woo, compelling cinematography? *shrug* I guess shots like that would be fine if this was a more action oriented film, like a 300-type movie, but it’s a drama, and there’s not many of these first-person perspective moments. Meaning when they show up, they stick out like a sore thumb bleeding profusely. Unless you’re a video game or trying to be this year’s HARDCORE HENRY, keep that shit off my big screen.
And Freeman. He… he’s… yeah, I can’t say anything bad about him. He was my shining ray of light. But he comes in nearly past the one hour mark, so I had to go half this movie without his A-list face gracing the story.
I’m grazing over the rest of the film to talk about the final moments. So Judah’s found out that his family isn’t dead, but they’ve… er… been driven to insanity? Brainwashed into hating him? Um… pudding… yeah, it’s as good as any other explanation as there isn’t one regarding their state of mental health. But whatever, Judah wins the chariot race against Cry Baby Dick. Cry Baby Dick gets so injured that he loses a leg. Because Judah wins the race, he earns his family’s freedom essentially. Suddenly, in the span of, what, less than ten minutes, Judah gets a pep talk from a betrayed Jesus on his way to the cross, a scene done so many times I’m surprised there aren’t action figures about it, learns the value of redemption and forgiveness (somehow), and returns to find Cry Baby Dick. Not kidding, in less that five minutes, the conversation they have is this:
Cry Baby Dick: You took my leg, you fucker!
Judah: I’m done hating you.
Cry Baby Dick: Me too. *hug and cry*
Holy mother of dear fucking shit, that was rushed like a mother fucker. But wait, there’s more! Ilderim uses his winnings to from the chariot race to buy the freedom of Judah’s mother and sister, and they magically aren’t insane or filled with hate toward Judah. Yeah, pudding again! But wait, there’s fucking more! Judah and Cry Baby Dick are reunited with that family, the same damn family that Cry Baby Dick was about to have executed for a crime that he knows they didn’t commit… AND THEY HUG EACH OTHER IN FORGIVENESS!!! Yeah, didn’t you know? When your kids attempt to have you CRUCIFIED, that’s really just them being rapscallions! WHO FUCKING KNEW!?!?!? BUT WAIT…. THERE’S MORE!!! What’s the high note they end the movie on? JUDAH AND CRY BABY DICK PLAYFULLY RACING THEIR HORSES!!! OH MY GOD, SCHMALTZ OVERLOAD!!! SCHMALTZ OVERLOAD!!! CANNOT HANDLE THE OVERWHELMING SCHMALTZ!!!
Ugh, I need a shot of Captain Morgan, guys. You know what, though? Despite everything that’s wrong with this and the many, many, many, problems this movie has, it’s honestly not the worst movie I’ve seen. It’s bad and I’m not recommending it. It’s not even that entertaining, but I’ve seen worse that have tried far less and looked a lot worse. I can’t compare it to the ’59 film, but I can safely say… save your gas, save your money, save your time, just… just skip it. In no way is it worth it.
My honest rating of BEN-HUR (2016): 2/5