Rated: PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images. Reviewed by: Frank Release date: August 19, 2016 Released by: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.
The question is why? Why remake Ben-Hur.
The 1959 version with Charlton Heston won eleven Oscars and cost about fifteen million dollars (big money back then) and is considered one of the best films ever made. Now comes Russian director (Timur Bekmambetov) (Kazakhstan) who produced the silly Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter in 2012 to take the helm and make limited photo copy of a great film. Another version was on the silent screen in 1925 with Ramon Navario and Francis X Bushman as the leading characters, all three are based on the Keith R. Clarke book.
All three have an effective chariot race scene but even the silent film action is more effective than this version. Jack Huston's Judah Ben-Hur is far more mild and nearly passive compared to the over the top work by Heston who survives five years rowing war ships for the Roman Empire through his anger and need for revenge. Here Huston leans more on faith and only is prone to anger once in a while. That anger in Heston drives the award winning 1959 film. It is more believable and far more powerful to watch. Messala played by Toby Kebbell is treated far more kindly by this script than his character was in 1959. He is forced to take action by Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek) when a young man who Ben-Hur has taken in, fires an arrow at Pliate, it almost appears that director Bekmambetov wants to save Messala's soul and create a soft landing for him at the climax.
Rodrigo Santoro plays Jesus but his character has little film time and the parallel of the two lives are not made clear. Nazanin Boniadi plays Ester the voice for peace between men of vengeance. She is not as religious as it might appear, she just wants to live her life with the people she cares about. She is a perfect symbol of a civilian caught between two warring parties who just wants to be allow to live. She gives the most effective performance. Morgan Freeman is an African who replaces the Arab from the earlier version. he owns the four white horses that will battle for victory in the arena. Freeman's Ilderim sees a win in the arena for a non Roman team as a way to strike at the Roman Empire, something like Jesse Owen's victory in the Berlin 1936 Olympics stinging Hitler.
The production even with a one hundred million dollar cost is pail. Battle scenes are filmed with hand held cameras held at close ups to project the image of action but so close that we can't determine who is doing what to whom. It's a blurred mess.
Messala is kinder and gentler over time, he is portrayed as a man who is just in a bad place but can be saved. The final scene for Steven Boyd in 1959 is filled with pain and arrogance and hate which is very much the contrast between Ben-Hur who has worked out his hurt by seeing Jesus in action on just two occasions. With that missing this is a weak bland copy that lacks the heart of the novel and the majesty of the Academy Award winner in 1959.