Ben-Hur 2016 begins with some mad, macho-style posturing, as it fast-forwards to the eventual chariot race when brothers Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell), his brother from another mother, are at odds with each other:
- Messala: “You should have stayed away!”
Judah Ben-Hur: “You should have killed me!”
Messala Severus: (decidedly) “I will.”
Ooh, tough talk, eh? It’s like Prime Minister’s Questions!
Then, as the main event gets going, it’s back to the beginning when they still liked each other, eight years earlier.
Having originally been written by General Lew Wallace in the film was first made in 1907, but the version everyone best remembers (and which I still haven’t seen – so, at least, the outcome of this new version was unknown to me) is Charlton Heston’s 1959 Oscar-winning epic, taking eleven statues. Before I saw this new version, I never saw anyone crying out for another remake. That said, what I’d definitely like to have seen, is the 1899 stage production of this, with eight horses in the chariot race. On stage!
Early on, we’re shown how they’re there for each other, as Judah falls off his horse and Messala picks him up… Aww. But disagreements come before long, as both of them fancy Esther* (Nazanin Boniadi), Messala spotting her first. However, since the Ben-Hur family adopted him when he was younger, he feels he owes them a debt and that the only way he can repay it is to join the army, thus gaining respect and stature in the community. Thing is, a hot chick isn’t going to stay single for long, especially for an idiot that’s gone off for years when he didn’t have to. Assumed dead, as he’s not had any replies to his letters, Judah starts seeking the pleasures of the flesh… y’know, while the cat’s away. That makes it all the more daft when, at one point, he questions God’s actions, even though he’s not without sit, as he’s been dipping his wick.
(*Then again, on checking the cast list afterwards, I wasn’t sure if they were talking about Tirzah (Sofia Black-D’Elia). Both girls were hot and looked similar, but as her surname was Ben-Hur, surely Judah wouldn’t be into one of his relatives? I mean, laws were more relaxed in those days, but, you never know…)
There’s some very ‘Channel 5 movie of the week’ dialogue, eg. when Judah tells Messala, “If you have something to say, then sat it to yourself, because otherwise, you’re just walking away”. It’s like Christopher Nolan‘s typical soap opera dialogue. That said, a lot of it feels in a current style, unlike the 200-year-old Poldark, for example.
Meanwhile, Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk – Borgen, 1864) hires Messala, while he’s out on manoeuvres, thus deepening the divide between them further. The daft thing is, though, the rivalry between the two brothers is, basically, a misunderstanding, and that’s what started all the crash/bang/wallop in both Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Captain America: Civil War.
Anyhoo, with Messala going in the army for three years, and Judah ending up rowing a galley for five years, that accounts for the eight-year gap. Oddly, five years on, he’s still sat in the same seat. Whenever I’ve worked in an office, we’ve moved desks every few months. And (slight spoiler about the galley ship, if you haven’t seen any previous version of this), so skip the next paragraph…
When Judah’s alone on the raft by himself, it’s like Life of Pi without the lion. And I thought they might strike up a song while rowing the boat. After all, it might get boring with the beating of the drum, but certainly not for the drum-beater. Even when he got injured, he was so dedicated to his craft that he continued to beat it all the more! It’s like the henchman of a Bond baddie, still ready to lay down their life, even when it’s late in the film and the jig is clearly up!
And for another song, with Judah always being referred to as ‘a Jew’, and with Messala enjoying their friendship early on, I half expected him to start singing Family Guy's I Need A Jew .
James Cosmo, as Quintus – the co-starred with Pilou Asbaek in the superb BBC comedy drama Stag – but I don’t think they shared screen time in that, and they certainly don’t here, as Cosmo is on the galley ship, being bossy, telling everyone what to do, while Pilou is usually out and about Roman’ around… (I’m here all week, tip your waitress)
Elsewhere in the cast, Morgan Freeman plays Morgan Freeman, for a change.
Judah Ben-Hur: “Turn it into wine, mate. I’m gasping!”
Now, on the subject of remakes. The 1959 blockbuster is often seen as ‘the original Ben-Hur‘, when it isn’t, but when a film’s won such critical acclaim and can’t be rivalled (according to all concerned, even though I haven’t yet seen it), why remake it? There’s been loads of versions of the Titanic story, for example, but after James Cameron’s 1997 Oscar-winning epic, can you imagine someone else attempting it again and on that scale? It just cannot compete!
That said, in Ben-Hur 2016, the chariot race is worth a watch in this film, but there’s a fair bit of clock-watching before you get to that point.
The end credits feature a drippy ballad, when the song I’d prefer (and much more upbeat) would be Ben Folds Five, where he thinks about joining the army . In that song, he ‘grew a moustache and a mullet’, whereas Messala doesn’t change his appearance at all. Well, other than accessorising with that Roman helmet.
Note: The film is a 12-cert because of some blood & accidents in the chariot race, I would expect, but there’s nothing a younger child couldn’t see. That said, they probably wouldn’t care about this particular film. Take them to Kubo and the Two Strings on Friday, instead.
And if you like end credits, there’s not a lot going on of interest, but the initial crew credits ‘race’ around the chariot track, which is quite amusing. Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned before, the lights went up the moment they started thus shining on the screen and impacting on the effect those credits had, which was bad. No cleaners showed up, though, which was good.
Like I said, I haven’t seen any version of this story before, but while Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell are merely okay, Rodrigo Santoro, as Jesus, nailed it!*
(*I’ll be here all month, keep tipping your waitress)
Ben-Hur 2016 is available to pre-order on Blu-ray, but not yet on DVD. Also, click on the poster for the full-size version.
Running time: 125 minutes
Studio: Entertainment Film Dists Ltd
Cinema: Vue, Lowry, Salford Quays
Format: 2.35:1 (Arri Alexa)
Released: September 7th 2016
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Producers: Mark Burnett, Sean Daniel, Duncan Henderson and Joni Levin
Screenplay: Keith R Clarke and John Ridley (based on the novel by Lew Wallace)
Music: Marco Beltrami
Judah Ben-Hur: Jack Huston
Messala Severus: Toby Kebbell
Jesus: Rodrigo Santoro
Esther: Nazanin Boniadi
Naomi Ben-Hur: Ayelet Zurer
Pontius Pilate: Pilou Asbæk
Tirzah Ben-Hur: Sofia Black-D’Elia
Ilderim: Morgan Freeman
Druses: Marwan Kenzari
Dismas: Moises Arias
Quintus: James Cosmo
Simonides: Haluk Bilginer
Marcus Decimus: David Walmsley
Jacob: Yasen Atour
Kadeem: Francesco Scianna
Elijah: Gabriel Farnese
Avigail: Denise Tantucci
Flores: Jarreth Merz
Gestas: Iaon Gunn
Hortator: Dato Bakhtadze
Sick Oarsman: Yorgos Karamihos
Reviewer of movies, videogames and music since 1994. Aortic valve operation survivor from the same year. Running DVDfever.co.uk since 2000. Nobel Peace Prize winner 2021.