Russell Baillie writes about movies for the Herald

Movie review: Ben-Hur

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There have been three previous Ben-Hur movies, as well as an animated version, a mini-series and a famous homage - Star Wars: The Phantom Menace - that ripped off its chariot race.

So a recommendation: Go find one of those. Because any way you look at it - even the hope of being so bad, it's good - the new Ben-Hur is an epic fail.

This one may claim to have gone back to the original 1880 Lew Wallace novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ as well as spending vast amounts on CGI for the action scenes.

But the results look cheap, the casting is off, the acting is bad, the script is historically and logically inept, the delivery is mostly television-like and pedestrian and the sermon it preaches makes this a faith-based movie aimed squarely at the dimmer kids in the Sunday School class.

Pilou Asbaek as Pontius Pilate in Ben-Hur.
Pilou Asbaek as Pontius Pilate in Ben-Hur.

Yes, it does have that chariot race. It even starts with a flash-forward of it to tease potential action excitement later.

But the 10 minutes of actual racing are tame and uninvolving compared to the 1959 wide-screen version.

The better action comes earlier, during a naval battle where galley slave Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is rowing for his life on team Rome.

That sea skirmish feels like it comes from a much better movie, something in the Gladiator league.

But it's a rare excitement in a movie that never really had a hope of topping the spectacle of the Oscar-sweeping 1959 Ben-Hur starring Charlton Heston as a Jewish nobleman seeking revenge for his enslavement by occupying Romans, led by his childhood friend Messala.

The strange incoherent result is mirrored in the creative team behind it. Russian director Bekmambetov is a box office hero at home but a Hollywood hack abroad with his most recent Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter following his epic Russian vampire movies Night Watch and Day Watch. Not sure if his past experience with wooden crosses qualified him for this religious tale, but he seems a strange choice.

Writer John Ridley won an Oscar for his adaptation of the high-minded 12 Years a Slave. Producer Mark Burnett is the guy behind television's Survivor and more tellingly, proselytising productions like History Channel mini-series The Bible and the movie Son of God.

So it's no wonder Jesus gets more to do in this than he did in the wings of the 1959 film.

He turns up quite often, sometimes doing a spot of woodwork to remind us he's a carpenter, to offer gnomic utterances about love, forgiveness and God's plans.

Rodrigo Santoro portraying Jesus in a scene from Ben-Hur.
Rodrigo Santoro portraying Jesus in a scene from Ben-Hur.

And even though he's the narrator, Morgan Freeman has been demoted from his usual role of God to a dreadlocked sheik who gives the freed Ben-Hur a chance to race for his chariot team.

But that's it for star-power. Jack Huston, who impressed as the masked hitman in Boardwalk Empire is a very lightweight presence as Judah Ben-Hur.

That Huston is no Heston makes this a movie with an empty centre where a heroic figure should be.

In this version, he's banished into slavery after a zealot takes a shot at Pontius Pilate from the Ben-Hur mansion. Judah takes the blame to save his family.

He survives the sea battle (in a scene with its own heavyweight crucifixion imagery) then wanders home to Jerusalem, rather than being given his freedom and hailed a hero in Rome, as he was in 1959.

That may cut a couple of hours out of the remake. But it's hardly character-building.

As his Roman rival, Messala, Toby Kebbell isn't much better. He's burdened with most of the clunky dialogue and has to say imperious Roman things in a voice that sounds more football hooligan.

Toby Kebbell plays Messala in Ben-Hur.
Toby Kebbell plays Messala in Ben-Hur.

In in an unfathomable change from the book and previous movie, Massala has grown up as Ben-Hur's adopted brother, but has been allowed to keep his Roman beliefs and loyalties, which he takes into military service for the empire, returning back to Jerusalem an officer.

Possibly, the fraternal relationship is to avoid the homoerotic connotations of the two characters' animosity the 1959 film hinted at.

Making them brothers makes the early scenes feel more like a Holy Land soap opera more than a reinvented sword and sandals epic. Its shaky start is a sign that in this Ben-Hur the wheels are going to fall off long before those chariots get out of the gates.

Cast: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell Morgan Freeman
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Running time: 123 mins
Rating: M (violence)
Verdict: Further proof they really shouldn't try making 'em liked they used to.

- TimeOut

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