Now there used to be a scared tradition among men. A ritual of sorts (and shorts), that before you’d go out to the club or out on the down, you’d shove an extra pair of rolled up socks down your tackle box to make the package look bigger than its actual contents (like an Amazon delivery), supposedly making it more attractive to the opposite sex. Having always favoured the honest and modest approach my socks have stayed on feet, but it’s always left me wondering what happens if that actually worked. Say your hook gets a bite on the promise of landing a whooper, surely when it comes time for the hands on inspection (even with the lights off), they’re going to notice the seriously false advertising leading to one hell of a disappointment. The point being that when you build things up towards something big, you really have to deliver the goods otherwise your failure becomes infinitely worse. 2016's Ben Hur remake spends most of the film building up to its climactic chariot race set piece.... only to delivery something completely underwhelming, making the whole thing feel a waste of time. This is not an epic; this is a socks-down-the-pants remake.
The Jewish prince or Jerusalem, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston – Boardwalk Empire), spent 5 years as a galley slave following the betrayal of his once loving adopted Roman brother Messala (Toby Kebbell – Fan4stic). Now with the help of the wealthy Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman – many awesome narrations), he’ll face Messala for his vengeance in a grand arena chariot race.
Okay, let’s start with the earlier claim about the race of disgrace. It does have the odd good moment to it but the problem is it’s nothing compared to its hype (both in and out of the film). It’s made out to be Death Race with added horse power and less napalm but so much of it feels really tame, not helped at all by some utterly terrible CG effects from the competitor crashes (especially the horse animation).
Apart from the two lead characters, none of the other 6 racers even get a name. Instead, they’re just introduced as tour de cultural stereotypes, barely 30 seconds before the start. I stand corrected; Suicide Squad’s Slipknot is not this year’s biggest red shirt thanks to these half-dozen. As a result, we fell nothing when anything happens to them good or bad as we’re too busy trying to remember who actually are from their brief introductions. There is some merit when it comes down to just Judah and Messala but it’s nothing spectacular, feeling nowhere near as thrilling as it needs to be. Yet worst of all, the facepalmus maximus, comes from the aftermath when in literally the same minute its result it becomes completely devalued. It’s clearly meant to bittersweet but it just feels frustrating.
The story is less a Roman affair and more a Greek tragedy. Many story elements and plot points have been carried over from 1959 incarnation (and 19th century source material which, in the no socks spirit, I won’t claim to have read). The trouble is that some are merely thrown in as token gestures feeling completely out of place while there other areas that director Timur Bekmambetov (Abram Lincoln Vampire Hunter) has tried to expand and stretch things to the point of utter dullness. The biggest problem is the first act, which takes a bronze age to actually go anywhere. There’s so much needless filler of Judah’s pre-betrayal life that should have been done more efficiently. Ben Hur should not be spending half its run time merely establishing its character relations. It also doesn’t help that much of Hur family life isn’t verynengaging, especially when it comes to the brothers love interests of Esther (Nazanin Boniadi – Homeland) and Tirzah (Sofia Black D'Elia - Project Almanac).
For a while, once certain expected events have run their course, it seems like the wheels have found their groves only to start going in circles again around in the two thirds mark in what feels like nothing more than stalling before the big race. Somehow, it even manages to rob Morgan Freeman of anything resembling a personality; they didn’t give him a character, just dreadlocks. On a final story note, although it is indeed part of the source material, the inclusion of Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro – 300) is largely ineffective. Santoro does okay (fun fact – he received personal blessings from Pope Francis for his role), especially in his earlier scenes but the crucifixion climax gets needlessly Mel Gibson on us and like so much of the film it doesn’t muster the biblical level impact it’s going for.
So far I’ve done but stone poor Ben but it must be said there is a light amongst the darkness deserving of recognition. This film has one absolutely outstanding scene/sequence that unlike anything else in the film does what a remake should do: it adds something of value. This is the brief foray into Judah’s slavery as a galley oarsman aboard a war ship. We see a naval battle against the Greeks played out entirely from his perspective bellow deck, and it’s stunning! The fleeting glances of other ships rushing past through the oar whole, the gut-wrenching impact as their vessel rams another and the claustrophobia as fighting/boarding breaks out on the deck above them with oil & tar oozing through the planks while the slaves still try to muster enough strength and courage to row the ship. It is heart pounding seat gripping stuff and for a few minutes at least you’re actually getting the excitement and epic feel you’d expect from a Ben Hur remake..... then of course, the dream ends along with the battle but when this film eventually comes to Netflix or whereever, find this scene and make sure you watch it!
Just as Heston’s 1959 version swept the Oscars (11 wins), this incarnation might just sweep the Razzies. It’s not that doesn’t compare its prior incarnations, it’s that it doesn’t even feel like it’s trying, making it nothing more than a pitiful cash in remake. If you do give it the benefit of the doubt, you’ll spent much of the film trying to work out where their $100 million budget actually went. It’s a failure for the ages and will be lagging at the back in this year’s film race.