Adaptation Adventure

'Ben-Hur' Film Review: 5 years a galley slave

August 19, 2016Ben MK

The chariot race in 1959's Ben-Hur is and forever will be one of the most iconic sequences in the history of cinema. At the same time, however, it's easy to forget that there's a whole three-and-a-half-hour film structured around it — something that ends up being both a blessing and a curse for director Timur Bekmambetov's big-budget, Gladiator-style remake of the Charlton Heston classic.

The story begins in 33 A.D. Rome, at the starting gates of the climactic chariot race that pits Hebrew prince-turned-galley-slave Judah Ben-Hur (Boardwalk Empire's Jack Huston) against his adoptive, Roman-born brother — now a centurion serving under Roman prefect Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk) himself — Messala Severus (Fantastic Four's Toby Kebbell). But alas, this is only a brief taste of the action-packed spectacle to come, as the narrative quickly jumps backwards eight years, to a time when the relationship between Judah and Messala was very different.

Once brothers devoted to the well-being of one another, Judah and Messala see their bond begin to fracture after Messala departs Jerusalem to enlist in the Roman army. Eager to redeem his grandfather's tarnished name, Messala works his way up the ranks and returns to Jerusalem three years later; but this time, he has a favor to ask of Judah: to provide him with the names of those religious zealots who threaten to destabilize Rome's growing empire. When Judah refuses, and when a zealot makes an attempt on Pilate's life, Messala turns on his former family.

As a result, Judah is put to work rowing in the galley of a Roman warship, while his mother Naomi (Ayelet Zurer) and sister Tirzah (Sofia Black-D'Elia) are sentenced to death. Five years later, however, Judah finally manages to rid himself of his shackles, and with the help of the dreadlocked Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman) — whose specialty happens to be chariot-racing — begins plotting vengeance against Messala. All this despite the pleas of his wife Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), who's spent the past five years spreading the word of Jesus (300's Rodrigo Santoro).

Writers Keith R. Clarke and 12 Years a Slave's John Ridley do a good job contemporizing Ben-Hur's narrative and setting up the characters, as well as laying the dramatic groundwork for the brothers' epic confrontation. However, the impact of their hard work is lessened by the film's concluding scenes, which cram in miracles and 180-degree attitude reversals — not to mention Jesus' arrest and crucifixion — into a matter of minutes, a consequence of the fact that this new Ben-Hur is a full hour-and-a-half shorter than the 57-year-old movie that inspired it.

As for the centerpiece action sequence, it proves worthy of the price of admission, feeling almost like something George Miller might have made, were he so inclined. It's just too bad that everything that follows it seems like an afterthought, because the movie gets a great many things right, from its international casting to the way it appeals to Christians without alienating secular audiences. In the end, Ben-Hur 2016 stands as a serviceable retelling of Lew Wallace's 1880 novel; but when it comes to being memorable, the film loses that race by a wide margin.

Ben-Hur releases August 19th, 2016 from Paramount Pictures. The film has an MPAA rating of PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images. Its runtime is 2 Hrs. 4 Mins.

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