First things first--there's this Best Picture-winning classic from 1959 called BEN-HUR, and any remake of it is likely to suffer in comparison. As will anyone else who plays the title role besides the great Charlton Heston, or anyone else who plays Judah Ben-Hur's adoptive brother Messala besides Stephen Boyd, or any other spectacular climactic chariot race that isn't the original spectacular climactic chariot race.
If, however, you can manage to get past all that (which I myself eventually managed to do to one degree or another), while remembering that the 1959 version is itself a remake of the equally spectacular silent version with Ramon Navarro and Francis X. Bushman, then the 2016 remake of BEN-HUR (Paramount Home Media Distribution) can be a rewarding as well as delightfully entertaining experience.
Based on General Lew Wallace's wildly-successful 1880 novel "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ", the story takes place in A.D.33 Jerusalem and is all about the loving yet highly competitive relationship between Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston, SHROOMS), a Jew, and his adoptive brother Messala (Toby Kebbell, WILDERNESS), a Roman, during a time when the Roman occupation is becoming ever more oppressive.
Complications ensue when Judah and his family are blamed for an attempt on the life of Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk, LUCY), and Messala, now an officer in the Roman army, is forced to take sides against them. With the brothers now mortal enemies, Judah's family disappears into captivity while he himself begins the drudgery-filled dead-end life of a galley slave.
But a twist of fate allows Judah to escape during a sea battle against the Greeks, whereupon he is taken in by African entrepreneur Ilderim (Morgan Freeman, THE DARK KNIGHT, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION) and allowed to enter the man's chariot in a thrilling race which will pit him against his brother Messala, the Roman champion.
If that chariot race is the main thing you're curious about, you're not the only one. I was chomping at the bit throughout the entire film leading up to it, and when it finally got under way, it proved to be exceptionally well-done and exciting.
As always, the use of digital effects detracts from the kind of real-world splendor and excitement we got in the pre-CGI days, but here, the effects are integrated well enough into the live footage to augment it very well.
As for the stunts, the sequence is loaded with visceral thrills that make it, if not superior to previous versions, at least worthy to stand alongside them. Younger viewers unfamiliar with the story will no doubt see here the inspiration for the podrace sequence in THE PHANTOM MENACE.
There's a modicum of romance, mainly between Judah and his great love Esther (Nazanin Boniadi, IRON MAN), the daughter of a slave. Most of the film's true sentiment, however, is focused upon the relationship between the two brothers, Judah's attempts to locate his missing mother and sister, and, most importantly, his spiritual awakening.
Here, his life intersects poignantly at key points with that of a humble, peace-loving carpenter named Jesus Christ, whose eventual crucifixion as an enemy of Rome gives the film one of its most heartrending sequences.
As Judah, Huston is no Heston, but for this more modest version of BEN-HUR--relatively speaking--it makes sense to have more of a smaller-than-life hero. Morgan Freeman plays his usual "sage old mentor" character while looking a bit like a cross between Whoopi Goldberg and the alien from PREDATOR. The rest of the cast perform adequately.
Direction by Timur Bekmambetov (ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER) is good although I would've preferred less "jittery-cam" and more traditional camerawork. As mentioned before, the Italian locations are stunning, and well-served by their digital augmentations. There are some amusing anachronisms in the dialogue, as when Judah cries out during some early horseplay, "ARE WE HAVING FUN NOW, BROTHER?" and later when a dazzled Messala exclaims "Wow!"
The Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from Paramount Home Media Distribution contains a Blu-ray disc with special features, a DVD disc with the film by itself, and access to a Digital HD version of the film. The Blu-ray is presented in 1080p high definition with English 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, French 5.1 Dolby Digital, Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital, Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital and English Audio Description and English, English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles. The DVD in the combo pack is presented in widescreen enhanced for 16:9 TVs with English 5.1 Dolby Digital, French 5.1 Dolby Digital, Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital and English Audio Description and English, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles.
Extras consist of the featurettes "Ben-Hur: The Legacy", "The Epic Cast", "A Tale for Our Times", and "The Chariot Race", along with deleted & extended scenes and related music videos.
While seldom on the same epic scale as its predecessors, this latest retelling of BEN-HUR does benefit from an earnest sincerity in its dramatic scenes, even when they don't quite move us to the degree intended. And--most importantly, of course--the action scenes deliver exactly what we're looking for when we watch a movie like this, and plenty of it.
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