Timur Bekmambetov's remake of the 1959 classic is heavy on the action but light on everything else
Comedian Mort Sahl's 'Loved him, hated hur' is the best – and shortest – film review in history (right up there with Walter's Kerr's 'Me No Leica' review of I Am A Camera? on Broadway). And that pithy take could apply just as easily to Soviet Union-born director Timur Bekmambetov's Ben-Hur, a remake that no one seems to have wanted but that everyone will want to see anyway.
Starring Jack Huston, the grandson of director John, in the lead, this big budget retake is less a reimagining than a supercharging of an already fabled story. There have been some changes; Messala (played by Toby Kebbell), originally Judah Ben-Hur's friend, is now his adopted brother, and the women are interchangeably pious and malleable. It is, perhaps, unfair to compare them with the sensational direction of the Ben-Hur of 1959, itself a remake of another remake. The point is that despite the cost of the production, this story has been a perennial favourite amongst audiences and filmmakers.
Why? The romance, certainly, and its take on the genesis of Christianity. But the major draw remains men in skimpy leather outfits driving a team of highly-trained speedy steeds through a death-defying race. That's right: if it wasn't for the incredible chariot race, few of us would remember much about any Ben-Hur film, and the same applies to Bekmambetov's. No stranger to action after his breakthrough Nightwatch and Daywatch and the rather good Wanted, Timur adds innovation to the already heady chariot race by sending horses into the crowds.
Without more spoilers, it's safe to say that the race is a highlight, along with the sea battle where Ben-Hur is freed from slavery. The remainder of the story is languid, but whether that is direction, editing or script or a combination of all is hard to determine. It's Ben-Hur for sure, but no real improvement on what's gone before; save Morgan Freeman's amazing dreadlocks. The production values may be high, but there's very few consistent thrills. The takeaway? Audience members were saying, "This wasn't as bad as I thought…" a tough lesson for a film with a budget of $100m.
General release from Weds 7 Sept.