Movie Review: ‘BEN-HUR’ – a horse of a different color

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Connor Bynum // Film Critic

BEN-HUR | 124 min | PG-13
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Cast: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro and Morgan Freeman

It seems the American film industry simply can’t go two seconds without churning out yet another remake, reboot, sequel, prequel, or an adaptation a comic book, video game, or young adult dystopian novel series.

So one can imagine when audiences heard when director Timur Bekmambetov (WANTED) was placed at the helm to remake 1959’s BEN-HUR they were skeptical at best and infuriated at worst. Let’s not forget that the original BEN-HUR is one of only three films to hold a record setting 11 Academy Awards.

How can a remake of one of the greatest films of all time possibly succeed? As it turns out, the remake that no one wanted actually gives the original a run for its money.

While the film seems to have a minor false start for the first 20 minutes or so, BEN-HUR thankfully makes a course correction from there and maintains a firm grip on the viewer all the way to the finish line.

Under the ever increasing threat of Roman persecution, Jewish Prince, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is desperate to keep the peace between Rome and the rising rebellion known as The Zealots who seek to overthrow the towering empire. Judah is eventually wrongfully accused of inciting an assassination on Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilot (Pilou Asbæk). He is then sent on a truly epic journey filled with hardship, loss, hate, and ultimately redemption.

Jack Huston is Judah Ben-Hur, Morgan Freeman is Ilderim. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Jack Huston is Judah Ben-Hur, Morgan Freeman is Ilderim. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

The film takes its time to establish the relationship between Judah and his adopted Roman brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell). Both Huston (PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES) and Kebbell (WARCRAFT) give excellent performances as their friendship slowly falls apart. The weight of this rivalry feels ever-present in Judah’s mind as his quest for revenge carries the film. Morgan Freeman also gives a fine performance as the dreadlock sporting Ilderim, a traveling trainer of chariot racers.

And while we’re on the subject of chariot races, the chariot race sequence in this remake is a wonder to behold that on its own is worth the price of admission. Masterfully shot and edited, the race is exhilarating from start to finish. If a gripe were to be made about it, there’s a laughably noticeable use of a CGI horse that makes its way into the stands. Of course, there are obvious reasons why a real horse was not used, but this bit could have been removed entirely and no one would have complained.

For those familiar with the story of the original, they will know that BEN-HUR is not just about a chariot race. While undoubtedly famous for the awe inspiring scale of its chariot sequence, at its core the original film is about a hateful man whose life is forever changed by chance interactions with Jesus of Nazareth (played here by Rodrigo Santoro). Understandably, the marketing for this remake has all but steered clear of this aspect of the story. With the stigma that follows modern day Biblical films, it’s no surprise that the producers are hoping to reach a broader market than just the devout. Unfortunately, Santoro (upcoming WESTWORLD) ends up feeling a little underdeveloped as Jesus. The basic message is there: Love your enemies and do unto others as you would have them do to you. But there are times when it never does more than scratch the surface. However, the majority of the Christian aspect of the film is handled with grace and subtlety.

Although certainly not without the occasional misstep, BEN-HUR is engaging, reverent to its source material, and ultimately more enjoyable than it has any right to be. So do yourself a favor and don’t bet on the wrong horse this weekend.

BEN-HUR opens nationwide on Friday.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.

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