Sunday, 18 December 2016

Movie Review: Ben-Hur (2016)



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Ben-Hur, the 1959 cinematic epic, is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. It is also three-and-a-half hours long, so between my disliking of overlong cinema and general attention span issues in general, I haven’t gotten around to watching it yet and I’m not even sure if I will. Yeah, I may do my background research where I can, but even I have limits. Not to say that I haven’t seen bits of it over time, just never in its entirety. As such, I’ll be going into this as most young filmgoers of today would and take this as its own work. So, now that it doesn’t exactly have a pre-existing impression of the story to live up to, how is it? This is Ben-Hur.


The plot: Judean prince Judah (Jack Huston) has had a strong bond with his adoptive brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) since they were kids. However, cultural identities cause them to start drifting apart and, after an altercation during a visit from a Roman dignitary, Messala sentences Judah to slavery for a crime he didn’t commit. Five years later, Judah returns to Jerusalem to get his revenge against Messala, and not being able to get close enough to him normally, he sets up to go against his brother in a chariot race in the Roman circus to regain his honour by stripping Messala of his.

The cast list here is pretty decent, especially considering their recent output has been less than impressive. Huston imbues Judah with a certain affable and peaceful quality that, while initially making him out to be a bit of a beatnik, allows for a good contrast once he enters full bloody-minded vengeance mode. Kebbell, considering how his last antagonistic role turned out, adds some real humanity to the character and his chemistry with Huston is very good. Honestly, if this whole film was them just slinging playful but clever barbs at each other, I would be more than happy. Morgan Freeman as Judah’s later confidante Sheik Ilderim, while going for a more morally ambiguous role than we usually see of Freeman, gives what is essentially a once-removed older mentor role the right amount of charisma to make it work. I’m mention others in the cast, but quite frankly, I can barely remember any of them aside from these three. Yeah, even for someone who likes taking time out to highlight the smaller players, the supporting cast isn’t that noteworthy.

The film starts out setting up a decent conflict between Judah and Messala, kind of like a live-action Prince Of Egypt in togas, but it honestly comes across like Judah is the one at fault because he keeps making rash and pretty dumb decisions, not thinking of who else will be hurt in the process. He’s so bloody-minded about getting his personal revenge for what his brother did to him (after he lied to him to make him do it) that the whole deal involving how the Romans basically enslaved the Jews doesn’t even fall into consideration. That lack of religious importance for the most part makes the Jesus interludes, played nicely low-key by Rodrigo Santoro, feel really jarring as a result. The fact that Jesus is an actual character here, in comparison to how weak Judah is, it’s start to feel less like a Roman epic and more like a dramatic remake of Life Of Brian.

Actually, more than anything else, this is a quick re-write away from just another clone of the original Fast & The Furious. Man betrayed by close friend, has to race him in a public arena to strip him of his pride and defeat him; heck, add 80’s sports movie to that as well, given the older mentor role of Sheik Ildarim who trains Judah for the finale sporting event. Now again, since I haven’t watched any of the past versions of this story in full, I can’t make any real guesses as to how similar this is to any of them. But at the same time, I just have to imagine that they didn’t go this route because, quite frankly, I doubt that a story this tropey would make the stuff of film legend.

And within all of those younger film aesthetics, the story loses its identity. I may not have seen the 1959 version in full, but I’ve seen enough of it to know of the genuinely epic scope that its production allowed it. Here, that same potential is just sent through the generic blockbuster wringer and we get something closer to the 2003 animated version in terms of making something so immense feel so small and unimportant. No worse is that felt than in the climactic chariot race, where the effects work makes it difficult to invest in. Not just because it’s CGI, but because the filmmakers tried to film this at the actual Circus Maximus in Rome, and then were rejected and just went straight to the soundstage. I refuse to believe that the directors thinks that these are the next best thing to the real location.

All in all, just going by its own merits, this is a film that feels stripped of a deeper meaning for the sake of including self-righteous power fantasy. The acting is fine considering the characters they’ve been given, and the start has a bit of promise but then it proceeds with the mass homogenization to make it just a standard sports racing movie wrapped around 10 Minutes A Slave, which kind of makes sense considering this shares a writer with 12 Years A Slave. It’s worse than The 5th Wave, which may have been much dumber than this but, aside from having a few legitimately decent moments, it’s still more entertaining even as a mockable farce. However, since this mostly falls into the realms of uninteresting, it doesn’t fare as bad as the honestly irritating CafĂ© Society.

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