Talking about opening up a can of worms. Take one of Hollywood’s favorite films, one that won 11 Academy Awards, and suggest a redo. Most people wouldn’t even want to come close to touching such a project, so it’s not a stretch to say that when Roma Downey and Mark Burnett said that they wanted to make a new Ben-Hur movie, they faced some resistance.
“The most ardent fans of the 1959 film might find it blasphemous to revisit it in any form, but they forget these characters existed 80 years prior,” says screenwriter says John Ridley. “People only tend to remember Charlton Heston and the chariot race, but Judah Ben-Hur is such a rich, classic character. He’s a wronged man seeking revenge and redemption. Compelling characters like Ben-Hur and Messala are the reason we can return to these stories again and again, so I wanted to make the personal conflict between these former friends just as tense and memorable as the climactic chariot race.”
And essentially, that’s what they did. Under the direction of Timur Bekmambetov, the new Ben-Hur is less of a remake and more of a re-imaging of Lew Wallace’s novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Instead of childhood friends seen in previous versions, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell) are step-brothers with Messala welcomed into Judah’s wealthy family. The two are inseparable but there is trouble in home. When Judah becomes injured, Messala is told to pray for Judah’s recovery by his step mother Naomi (Ayelet Zurer) and then gets scolded by her for placing an idol statue in front of Judah’s door. “We have different gods,” she tells him. Like teenager struggling to fit in, it isn’t really his family after all, Messala basically runs away to join the army and returns years later as an officer in the Roman army.
While Judah Ben-Hur’s family isn’t exactly fans of the Roman empire, they are respectful. However, when an unfortunate event happens, the prince and his family are falsely accused of treason by Messala. Judah finds himself removed from his family and shipped out to become a galley slave. After yet more horrific events occur, Judah finds himself working for Ilderim (Morgan Freeman) who bets on chariot races. When Ilderim figures out who Judah really is, he convinces Judah to face his brother for the ultimate showdown within the stadium.
Through this journey, Judah is bent on seeking revenge, but through periodic interactions with Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) and his wife Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), is inspired for better things and reconciliation.
While reviewers will compare this Ben-Hur with the others that came before it, I only judge this film on its own merit and in short, it’s great. It’s very entertaining and the two hours and five minutes of film time just flies by. Huston and Kebbell have great screen chemistry together and you’ll find yourself wanting them to just get along like they used to. Of course, Morgan Freeman is excellent and believable in his role that acts like a mentor to Judah.
The sets are beautiful and the action is well-paced. Sure, the camera gets a little shaky here and there and it was bit distracting, but overall, this is very good film. While everyone will be waiting for the chariot race at the end, which is pretty impressive, it is also topped by the incredible action that takes place on the ship. While Judah is enslaved and part of the rowing team, they come under attack and the results are pretty spectacular.
As a partnership between Paramount and MGM, this is the latter’s third production of Ben-Hur. As a faith-based film, Bekmambetov smartly chose subtlety instead of hammering biblical principles. Though Jesus doesn’t appear all that much, Santoro’s interpretation of Him is both believable and engaging. His presence isn’t distracting to the story, it enhances it.
One doesn’t expect to see so much violence in a religious film, but the more disturbing parts happen off screen keeping the focus of the film on the actual story, not the special effects or stunts.
Finally, this is a story of redemption, so while things get pretty bleak at times, the story ends on a much more inspiring note. I will say that the ending did feel a little rushed as if the film had just ran out of money and had to finish things out pretty quickly before the credits start to roll. Overall, this Ben-Hur has everything you want in a faith-based film without any of the cheesiness that you don’t.
I write about pop culture, arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.