First to Finish. Last to Die
Ben-Hur is the fifth film adaptation of the 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace. The previous installments were 1907 and 1925 silent films, followed by the 1959 Academy Award winning version starring Charlton Heston, and then the 2003 animated film of the same name. This adaptation is directed by Timur Bekmambetov and stars Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, and Morgan Freeman.
Ben-Hur (Huston) is a Jewish prince who lives with his mother and sister in Jerusalem, and has a close bond with his adoptive brother, Messala (Kebbell). One day, Ben-Hur is falsely accused of treason by Messala, and is sent into slavery. Ben-Hur survives several grueling years, and later sets out to take revenge on Messala. At the same time, Ben-Hur undergoes an intrinsic change after many encounters with Jesus of Nazareth.
The commercials and poster have Ben-Hur attempting to build itself around its one grandiose scene, the chariot race. Not only that, but the run time has been trimmed down to two hours, as opposed to the sprawling three and a half hour length of the 1959 film. Strangely enough, the laceration of the run time presents itself as a major opportunity cost. While Ben-Hur can dazzle at times, some other important aspects regarding characters and story feel shallow.
- The chariot race. The race pits Judah against Messala in their climactic duel for vengeance and pride, respectively. Horses, human bodies, and chariot cars go crashing and flying into little bitty pieces. The whole sequence is a 10 minute, slam-bang action piece that you've been waiting to see since the opening minutes. No question it delivers. The only major downside is the frantic editing that might make you Ben-Hurl if you're feeling a little too queasy.
- The slow pacing in the beginning. The movie is far too elongated when it comes to initiating its central story. Too much time is spent seeing Judah engage in small-talk with Messala, as well as us witnessing Messala engage in combat with the Roman army. You might begin to second-guess if the movie is 2 hours as opposed to 3 and a half.
- The faith-based themes of the movie are underdeveloped and shoehorned in at the last minute. Ben-Hur sees Jesus for the first time when Jesus offers him water while Judah is being taken away by the Romans. Ben-Hur then later returns the favor while Jesus is carrying his cross when he is to be crucified. Outside of these interactions, which make you believe that Jesus and Ben-Hur are close friends, Judah's supposed inspiration to be more compassionate and loving isn't fully convincing, since a stingy amount of screen time is truly dedicated to this matter. The crucifixion scene is rushed, and Ben-Hur's mother and sister are cured of their leprosy in no time after seeing them with the disease just one time beforehand (I'm not kidding. It was literally one time). In the 1959 version, Ben-Hur is more of a witness to Christ's works and death, and Jesus' face is never fully seen at any point in the film. The relationship between them in 2016 feels more personal, which would be more acceptable if Ben-Hur was an actual disciple.
Ben-Hur delivers some honorable excitement, particularly in its chariot race, but the film is uneven as a whole. The faith-based aspects are weakly developed, and the pacing, at times, is sluggish. I also did not want to forget to mention that Morgan Freeman looks awkward wearing dreadlocks (dreadlocks just do not suit him). Perhaps Ben-Hur is a story that benefits from a lengthy run time. It is understandable why it was cut down to two hours for this version, but it is an opportunity cost that, in the end, is a little too costly.
Recommend? Only if you've seen the 1959 film beforehand
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