Ben-Hur *1/2

Tepid remake lacks the performances and storytelling needed to make it worth seeing.

Is it worth $10? No

It’s not that a remake of one of the greatest movies of all time can’t be good, it’s that it has no chance to be good when you butcher the story, write ham dialog and don’t have nearly enough action. So let it be known: The 2016 version of “Ben-Hur” is how not to remake a bona fide classic.

Film aficionados recognize the irony here, as the 1959 version of “Ben-Hur” that won 11 Oscars was itself a remake of a 1925 silent film based on the Lew Wallace novel. The ’59 version did exactly what a remake should do: It took the basics of the original, expanded the story, amped up the action and drama, and was such a well-received epic that it won Oscars for Picture, Director (William Wyler) and Lead Actor (Charlton Heston). The 2016 version, in contrast, improves nothing and is a pale imitation of its predecessor; the only Oscars these filmmakers will see will be on TV as they watch from home. 

Of course it’s not as good as the ’59 version, you say. There’s no way Timur Bekmambetov, the director of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” was going to give us something Oscar-worthy, you’re thinking. Fair enough. But that’s what makes this infuriating: This remake exists for no reason, and it’s not even good enough to pass as fun popcorn entertainment. The characters, story, dialog, acting and directing are all subpar. They took a classic Hollywood property, threw it in a blender and tried to put it back together with a happy ending. You can’t do that.

The title character is Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a Jewish prince in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus of Nazareth (Rodrigo Santoro). His parents, Simonides (Haluk Bilginer) and Naomi (Ayelet Zurer), adopt a boy named Messala (Toby Kebbell) for Judah and his sister Tirzah (Sofia Black D’Elia) to play with. Now grown up, Messala and Tirzah are in love, while Judah has feelings for local girl Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), though it should be noted that at no point do either of the love stories matter. No, this is the story of Messala leaving to become a soldier, only to return to Jerusalem to take his brother as a slave for Rome.

There are two decent action scenes, one while Judah is on a boat and the other being the chariot race in the finale. Individually these sequences are fine, but what’s built around them is a mess: An unconvincing drama centered on sibling rivalry that becomes a matter of religion, pride and loyalty. Judah experiences great adversity and perseveres, while Messala goes out to prove himself and is unable to handle how to be a good brother and soldier. These elements could’ve made for solid drama, but they feel rushed and shakily developed, and the actors fail to register the needed emotion to get the audience involved. And on top of it all is Morgan Freeman in the worst dreadlock wig in the history of cinema, nobly narrating the opening moments and trying to keep a straight face during the absurdity of the rest of it.

As I think about it, maybe my thought process here is wrong. Maybe you should go see “Ben-Hur” just see to a really terrible Ancient Roman story, which will ensure that you never see a worse one. Or you could watch “Gladiator” again. Or better yet, the 1959 “Ben-Hur.”

Did you know?
Only two other films besides the ’59 “Ben-Hur” have won 11 Oscars, which is the most any movie has won: “Titanic” (1997) and “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” (2003).

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