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'Ben-Hur' a Biblical bore

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Dull, disinterested remake fails to resonate

While there have been a number of successful offerings, the reality is that the summer of 2016 has been marked by a preponderance of underperforming films particularly those that fall into the category of sequel and/or remake/reboot.

That trend officially culminates with 'Ben-Hur,' a remake of the 1959 William Wyler epic that starred Charlton Heston. The new film seems to have little understanding with regards to just what made the previous film so successful. There's something particularly dreadful about a film set in Biblical times a film in which Jesus Christ Himself is a supporting character that has no soul.

In essence, this 'Ben-Hur' is an empty husk, a digitally constructed bore that disappoints on just about every possible front.

Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston, 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies') is a prince living in Jerusalem. He and his family are doing their best to maintain an uneasy peace with the Roman forces that rule over the land. His adopted brother Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell, 'Warcraft'), a foundling of Roman descent, struggles to find his place within the family and ultimately chooses to go off to war and fight for the Empire in an effort to make a name for himself.

Years pass. Judah marries former servant Esther (Nazanin Boniadi, TV's 'Homeland') and continues to try and find a place of compromise between his people and the Romans. Messala returns a conquering hero, one who has fought his way up through the ranks to become a trusted lieutenant of Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek, 'A War'). Messala has come back to enlist Judah's help in ensuring safe passage for Pilate through Jerusalem; see, there are various elements in Jerusalem that are less inclined to Roman compromise. There are zealots a-plenty, as well as this carpenter named Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro, 'Jane Got a Gun') who is developing a bit of a reputation. Judah agrees to try and maintain Pilate's safety.

Unfortunately, things do not go as planned.

Messala winds up marking Judah's family for death and sending Judah himself into slavery, dropping him into the galley of a warship to serve as an oarsman. He spends five years in the belly of the ship, escaping only when a battle sinks his ship, leaving him as the only survivor.

He's cast up on shore and discovered by an African nomad named Ilderim (Morgan Freeman, 'Now You See Me 2') who makes his living wagering on chariot races. And it turns out that Messala has become Rome's favored son through his acumen in the racing arena, so Judah sees an opportunity to return home and exact revenge for his brother's betrayal.

But is vengeance what he truly desires? Will he achieve it? And what will it mean if he does? And so on and so forth.

There are a lot of problems with 'Ben-Hur.' The lack of narrative depth is astonishing; while the original wasn't particularly plot-heavy, this reboot seems to have jettisoned even the most rudimentary moments of character development and motivation. The characters as constructed are nearly impossible to care about, and without that connection to the characters, the rest of the story such as it is is rendered meaningless. Even the effects work the one area which might justify remaking the film is lackluster, a combination of low-rent digital work and terrible directorial choices ensuring that any and all CGI stuff is ineffectual, invisible or both.

(Even the chariot race the primary reason anyone ever wants to watch 'Ben-Hur' kind of sucks. The lack of kick-ass in the chariot race is probably the biggest of this film's many sins.)

Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov best known in this country for 'Wanted' and 'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter' (yes, really) seems to be in over his head with this one. It's as if he's making his stylistic and aesthetic choices at random; there's no rhyme or reason to the decisions that he's making. Intimate moments are shot wide, huge action set pieces are shot claustrophobically close it just doesn't work.

It's not all his fault, though. The performances certainly don't help. You'd be hard pressed to find a blander, less charismatic central pairing than Huston and Kebbell. Don't get me wrong they're trying. They just aren't succeeding. Huston simply can't generate the gravitas to hold our interest; he's practically a non-entity for half the movie. Kebbell who can be quite good seems content to offer assorted flavors of sullenness interjected with the occasional outburst of rage. Both men often seem a bit confused as to just what they're supposed to be doing. The rest of the cast is mostly forgettable aside from the fact that there are an awful lot of white folks for the Middle East in the first century. Oh, and I can't tell what the hell Morgan Freeman is doing here his presence feels a bit like stunt-casting and is mostly just a distraction.

'Ben-Hur' is a transparent attempt to grab a piece of the not-insignificant faith-based movie audience, one of the few big-budget efforts aimed at that demographic. It's not a bad idea; the only problem is that in this case, you still need to make a good movieand this is not a good movie.

[1 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 January 2017 19:39

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