Movie Review : Ben-Hur (2016)
Ben-Hur is a classic 1959 4 hours-long movie starring Charlton Heston that has been shown on television once a year for the last 50 years, usually around Easter. It's a tradition in certain families and an afterthought in others, but I'm fairly certain everyone who's ever had strong opinions on the movie died a long time ago. The main legacy of the film is that it's marred with hilarious inconsistencies and anachronisms people had a field day picking apart over the years. I'm fairly certain it created several Easter drinking games. I've never watched it entirely nor felt the need to. The last thing I felt this movie needed was a freakin' remake and it's exactly what happened last year. Ben-Hur was rebooted by Timur Bekmambetov (or the Night Watch legacy) of all people. And you know what? It's not nearly as stupid as it sounds.
If you're not familiar with the story of Ben-Hur, don't beat yourself up. I wasn't quite sure either before this remake refreshed my memory. Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a wealthy Jewish prince trying to enjoy himself in Jerusalem during the expansion of the Roman empire. His life starts falling apart once his adopted Roman brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) leaves home to join the Roman legion. He comes back three years later to march on Jerusalem with his troops and asks Judah to help secure the passage of Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek) himself from the powerful undercurrent of local rebels. Judah was already sheltering an injured rebelled kid at the time and refused to give him up. His life turned to an absolute nightmare once the kid uses his own bow to attempt on Pilate's life, condemning his benefactor to the galleys and to a long and painful journey to re-establish his name.
Remaking Ben-Hur is silly and borderline indefensible at best. Pop culture became almost completely secular decades ago and I cannot give you a decent reason why you should care about this movie. The idea of a Ben-Hur reboot is stupid yet the execution is competent, if not compelling. It's a leaner, sexier and more pompous version of the original and it's at peace with what it is. It's a sweeping historical odyssey built exactly like every sweeping historical odyssey that's been released over the last 5 years. Curiously enough, it makes for a rather convincing Christian narrative because it's explained in a simple and contemporary language. Because that's what the story of Judah Ben-Hur is at heart: a Christian novel about the futility of revenge. Timur Bekmambetov's Ben-Hur (somewhat) rejects the myth of redemptive violence and just for that, it gets a pass in my book.
Perhaps the most underrated reason to watch Ben-Hur is the Jesus scenes. J Easy has some of the best scenes in that movie. Whenever he's on screen, the narrative is literally interrupted for a token moment of spirituality not unlike Wayne Campbell's meditations on things (and people) he wishes to own. Seriously, guys. He's only a couple scenes away from having his own drinking game. Every time Jesus interrupts a conversation to deliver the gospel, take a shot! Rodrigo Santoro (the guy who plays the androgynous Xerxes in Zach Snyder's 300) makes for a great weirdo Jesus. He doesn't seem all there, yet he's oddly magnetic which I suppose is by design. If I ever met a man telling me he believed 100% in his connection with the supernatural being who created us all, I would expect him to look exactly like the Jesus of Timur Bekmambetov's Ben-Hur.
The main thesis of Ben-Hur is that murdering your enemies is not a way to solve your problems. It will create relationships of power and retribution that are only resolvable through violence and murder. That message itself is very cool. Not that Timur Bekmambetov came up with it himself, but his merit lies in somewhat courageously reintroducing this idea in an era where violence itself has become a form of currency in Hollywood. The worth of action movies is measured in explosions, bullets flying and bodies dropping. While Ben-Hur has its fair share of carnage, it doesn't frame it in a psychosexual like most movies do. I can't say it's an original movie by any means, but it's a formulaic and easygoing experience which has something more to offer than both contemporary film and contemporary remakes. Not necessarily a mandatory stop, but a sneaky-fun viewing experience that was unfortunately condemned from the get-go. Give it a try if you have a couple hours to spend on another sweeping historical odyssey.