By: Hawk Ripjaw (Six Pack) –
Another version of a story that’s been told half a dozen times, including one that won so many Oscars that people actually had to be hired to carry all of those little gold statues home? Surely this won’t suck!
Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is living the high life in Jerusalem, even as the town is under the cold rule of the invading Romans. Fortunately, when you’ve got Fuck You money like the Ben-Hurs do, a Roman invasion is nothing more than hearing Jews scream in the street every now and then. Less dismissive of the invasion is Ben-Hur’s adpoted brother Messalah (Toby Kebbel), who wants to join the Roman guard. So he does that, and years later, they reunite while Ben-Hur houses a wounded zealot in his house–just the people Messalah was looking for. And while Messalah knows that Ben-Hur knows something about it, Ben-Hur refuses to give up any names which makes Messalah sad. As a budget-Michael Shannon-looking Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek) rides through the streets, said zealot jumps up and tries to shoot Pilate, but he dodges and another soldier is killed. The Romans run into the Ben-Hur household, murder the old guy, send the women to be executed and Ben-Hur to be a galley slave. Ben-Hur doesn’t play that shit, so five years a slave later, he is washed ashore by a battle with some other galley ships and meets Morgan Freeman, who teaches him to be a chariot racer so he can defeat reigning champion Messalah in what Freeman calls “The Circus,” which is actually the chariot races and not what it sounds like, which would have probably been a more entertaining movie anyway.
And Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) kind of just does his thing.
HOLY SHIT DID YOU GUYS SEE THAT TRAILER FOR ARRIVAL?
The centerpiece of all of the film’s marketing is the climactic chariot race, and it mostly delivers. While it doesn’t quite inspire awe like the completely practical 1959 race did, it still goes for the throat in a way that feels manic and brutal with close calls with the camera, bodies being flung and dragged, and hooves, dust and sand everywhere. It’s pretty exciting.
That said, who’s down for Fast & Furious IX: A Tale of the Christ?
Even Batman knows how to crack a joke, something that this movie is either unwilling or unable to do. Revenge movies can be a little fun. There are also great ones that are super dark. For some reason, while relentless darkness can work for a movie, if you don’t do it right it’ll just come across like Ben-Hur, which is to say that the movie not only fails to have any genuine intended moments of humor or lightness beyond the first intro of Judah being in love, but it pretty much actively resists having any sort of fun at all. Even when the scene is laid out perfectly for something a bit light, such as when Morgan Freeman’s horses get away and everybody learns that Ben-Hur is good at chariots because of the way he got them back. Maybe the movie realized it doesn’t have 4 hours like the Charlton Heston one did so it felt like it just had to stuff those scenes in there. Regardless, it sucks.
For as grim and serious as the movie tries to be, it’s not without wonderful reprieves of unintended goofiness. There’s Jesus being introduced not as Jesus, but a random guy who says wise things and does carpentry. There’s the galley drummer that catches on fire during battle and keeps drumming, or the dude tied to the front of the ship. There’s everyone talking with an English accent (because of course). There’s the random shot of a chuckling Roman during the crucifixion, and a few others, but they’re just a stick dangling the carrot of what this movie could have been.
This update reportedly cost $100 million to make, and it must have all gone to the two major set pieces because everything else looks cheaper than a bottom-tier History Channel reenactment (actually, even that Jesus series from a couple of years ago, ironically sharing a producer credit with this, looked better). Apparently Jerusalem is only a single street or two recycled for each of the dozen or so outdoor Jerusalem scenes.
It doesn’t help that each of the perfectly groomed, extremely attractive cast look more suited to Maxim: A Tale of the Christ than they do to Jerusalem, with Ben-Hur’s second act stint as a slave just making him look like a CW knockoff of Jason Momoa’s Aquaman and his final act chariot racer look like Charlie Day if you squint at the poster.
The only thing more brutal than the chariot race in this movie was the central romance. HEY-OHHHH. With about as much chemistry as a high school audition with two teenagers that hate each other, Esther and Ben-Hur are excruciatingly wooden and as such make the first half hour of the film actually feel longer than following 90 minutes. It’s not as bad as Twilight, but it comes damn close.
“My movie is about love and forgiveness,” says Timur Bekmembatov in an interview. If you’ve ever wanted to see what a movie about love and forgiveness from the director of Wanted (and its parade of gleefully sadistic violence) would look like, here you go. It’s less “a movie about love and forgiveness” than it is “an epilogue of love and forgiveness.” As it turns out, people afraid of this movie turning an iconic Charlton Heston role into some wuss don’t technically have anything to worry about, since this movie is 90% Ben-Hur wanting to murder the shit out of Messalah and 10% Ben-Hur realizing he doesn’t get 4 hours like Charlton Heston did so he better hurry the fuck up and learn the message of the movie in a rushed emotional scene that takes place after the climax. And does he ever, in one of the worst redemption scenes ever to drag itself onto the screen.
Then there’s the thief to the right of Jesus, who, in the Bible story, opened his heart to Jesus and was told he’d go to heaven. In this movie it’s that same injured zealot, who at this point would need the ending of The Life of Brian to distract him from how much of a failure he is.
Ben-Hur’s message of redemption and forgiveness is so half-assed it would have been just as effective if Bekmembatov popped up to yell “it was just a prank, bro” after the movie’s avalanche of violence–partly because the movie’s focus on gritty action shows that violence kinda works, if only it was in a better movie with a better script and better pacing and better everything else. Quite apart from looking cheap, being poorly acted, and with pacing like a dying horse, it also tries to be both a redemptive tale and a revenge epic, and fails at both. Who knows why Paramount and MGM thought this would be a good idea, but in this case, literally everyone loses.
Ben-Hur (2016) Drinking Game
Do a Shot: every time Esther tries to convince Ben-Hur not to take revenge.
Take a Drink: every time the rival chariot racer screams “I KEEL YOU!” during the race.
Take a Drink: whenever it’s clear Morgan Freeman doesn’t give a shit.
Do a Shot: every time the zealot does something stupid/messes up.