For the momentous conclusion of the Summer Flings series, please join me on a journey down Memory Lane. Actually, just turn with me onto Memory Lane and then stop immediately, because it’s right there on the right – August 9, 2016. That’s when Paramount Pictures and MGM admitted that they had spent $100 million for Timur Bekmambetov (WANTED) to remake BEN-HUR, and that if anyone was interested it would be briefly available for public viewing.
Believe it or not I was interested, but limited showings prevented me from being able to see it in the 3D I felt would be crucial for the full ludicrousness of the director of ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER‘s take on one of old Hollywood’s greatest epics, so I gave up and didn’t see it until now.
On its own merits, this BEN-HUR is fine. It’s light on the Bekmambetovian shamelessness that I was excited for, but it’s a solid enough retelling of Lew Wallace’s stirring 1880 tale of fictional Jewish elite Judah Ben-Hur, who is enslaved, freed, and returns to confront his childhood friend turned Roman Prefect Messala.
Biggest problem: Jack Huston (OUTLANDER, AMERICAN HUSTLE, PRIDE + PREJUDICE + ZOMBIES) may fit the character more naturally than Charlton Heston, but he lacks the movie star charisma and gravitas that makes a larger-than-life screen icon. For the first 40 minutes I completely sided with Messala (Toby Kebbell, Koba from DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, Dr. Doom from FANTASTIC FOUR), who by the way spends most of the movie with a very convincing sword-slice across one of his ears. Hats off to that.
To this adaptation’s credit, Messala is given strong motivations and a heroic pulling-himself-up arc while Judah is still an entitled douche too comfortable to give his full support to the Jewish resistance. When Messala returns home after years at war and is having a deep talk with his love Tirzah (Sofia Black D’Elia, THE IMMIGRANT), Judah cluelessly interrupts to show him something and you want to smack him.
Messala has expressed his discomfort with some of the things his empire does, and his willingness to stand up to his superiors. He’s on the wrong side, but he’s way more thoughtful about it than Judah, is genuinely trying to use his position for peace and has every reason to feel betrayed by Judah’s seeming complicity in an assassination attempt. (Instead of accidentally knocking a brick onto Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek, LUCY)’s entourage as in the ’59 version, a dreadlocked “zealot” kid [Moises Arias, NACHO LIBRE] who sleeps in their basement actually fires an arrow.)
Only because Messala condemns his adopted mother (Ayelet Zurer, MUNICH) and his love along with Judah am I able to say “okay, fuck this guy.”
Luckily that’s exactly when Judah spends five years forced to row for warships and hardens into an epic hero. As his hair grows and his back is covered with whip scars, he starts to look less like Russell Brand and more like a slim Jason Momoa. This section has the most interesting filmatism and most harrowing sequences. I kind of think the movie is worth seeing just for the crazy-intense naval battle seen from inside the galley, attacking warships glimpsed through holes and gaps in the side of the boat. Flaming arrows shoot in from the sides, oil pours in from above. The guy who bangs the drum to direct the rowers catches on fire and keeps drumming for a while! Made me kind of respect him.
Then there’s the incredible sight of a Greek boat coming straight at them with a guy tied to the front. This must’ve been a world class 3D money shot, but it also looks amazing flat, with the mast getting closer, closer, closer and crunching through the side, splashing blood mixed with sea water onto the lens.
This version skips the entire section of Judah impressing his slavemaster, moving up the ranks, learning to ride a chariot in battle and getting adopted so that he can be free. Instead he just escapes the shipwreck and when he meets the gambling Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman, UNLEASHED) he impresses him by nursing one of his horses to health. I’m not sure why he’s so skilled with chariots, but he is, and they set up the bet to get revenge on Messala for the (he thinks) deaths of Judah’ s mother and sister.
By the way, yes, they follow the Morgan Freeman rule: he does some narration at the beginning even though clearly that character wouldn’t be the narrator if he was played by anyone other than Morgan Freeman or Keith David. And if Freeman was playing one of the other rowers on the boat or a leper in the cave or a guy in the stands at the chariot race then this would still be his story to tell. Because he’s Morgan Freeman.
Of course they throw alot of effort into the chariot race since it’s the most famous part of the old version, and they even frame the story around it by opening with the race about to begin and then flashing back to everything leading up to it. I hope some day they remake NORTH BY NORTHWEST starting with the cropduster scene and flashing back, or THE TERMINATOR starting with “I’ll be back.”
I can’t disagree with the conventional wisdom that modern digitally enhanced action is gonna have a hard time ever stacking up to the excitement of the iconic 1959 chariot race. But I think without that comparison to make it would be pretty impressive – a nice sense of speed, a ton of stunts (including with the real actors, it seems) and inventive Go Pro type camera angles that put you right in the middle of it, sometimes behind one of the wheels or under the horses looking up at them.
You would think Bekmambetov would go crazy with the blades that come out of Messala’s wheels, but actually he doesn’t use them! He does have a cool climax where Judah has to make it over the finish line while balancing on one wheel.
They tried promoting this as a Jesus movie, which I think is a little disingenuous. Yes, Judah’s adventure runs in parallel to Jesus’ rise and crucifixion, and he runs into him a couple times, getting wisdom and water from him. While the ’59 version made Christ awe-inspiring by never showing his face, this just shows him like a regular dude and he’s played by Rodrigo Santoro (Xerxes from 300 and 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE). But there is no more, and arguably less, emphasis on Jesus than in the William Wyler version. I guess it has versions of most of the same scenes, including the crucifixion, but they take out the idea of trying to bring his leprous family to Jesus to be healed. And to me it seems like taking out Judah’s most charitable act – saving his tormentor from the shipwreck instead of letting him die and escaping – makes it less Jesus-y.
On the other hand, there’s a nice makeup scene at the end that promotes forgiveness. (I like this scene, but the ’59 version, revealing the true fates of Judah’s family, is way better drama.)
BEN-HUR was originally slated as a February release, but they decided it was more of a summer tentpole and moved it to August. Then they got scared of PETE’S DRAGON and SAUSAGE PARTY so they moved it back another week, signaling little faith in their movie. But they did release an album called Ben-Hur – Songs Inspired by the Epic Film. I’ve never heard of a single one of the performers, but they’re singers and bands, not score composer Marco Beltrami, so I don’t know how they relate to the movie. There are titles like “Ceasfire” and “Surrender” and “Shadows,” but sadly not “Ballad of the Poor Guy Tied To the Front of That Boat That Rams Into Them.”
Without a great song like that to play on the radio and make people want to see the movie and sing along and have a great time and tell all their friends, BEN-HUR sunk like a Roman warship that was rammed at the box office instead of in the Ionian Sea. It opened in sixth place behind SUICIDE SQUAD (third week), SAUSAGE PARTY (second week), WAR DOGS and KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS (both new) as well as PETE’S DRAGON (second week). The next week DON’T BREATHE and MECHANIC: RESURRECTION came out and BEN-HUR already dropped to #10 and then #15 the week after that when it lost 917 screens and had no showings that I could go to before work.
I guess people figured they’d BEN-HUR, done that.
You get it? Because… well, I think you get it. It’s a play on words type of joke you see. Hard to explain. Forget about it. Good one though in my opinion I think you would like it if you got it.
If this had a really great lead I would try to get you guys to watch it. As it is, I’m happy that I enjoyed it. But mostly I’m glad that they made it because it got me to finally get off my ass and watch the more famous one.
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END OF SUMMER FLINGS , and thus, summer. Go back to school, kids. Stop wearing white, adults.
Thank you for reminiscing/rethinking/suffering through all these misfit summer movies with me throughout these last few months. I had a good time, mostly.
Of the movies I watched for this series, I’d say my favorites were probly THE ROCKETEER and DICK TRACY. The worst was definitely COOL WORLD. Biggest surprise was probly LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, since I used to hate it and now I thought it was kind of fun. Or maybe WILD WILD WEST. And BATMAN & ROBIN was the biggest turn around – I have always known it was trash, but now I think it’s good trash (thought to be honest I had discovered that on a viewing prior to writing about it). Of the ones I hadn’t seen, BATTLE FOR TERRA may have been the most surprising, because I really expected it to be terrible.
I guess the real discovery here is that I can learn to appreciate almost anything. You guys are never gonna forgive me for saying THE LAST AIRBENDER was okay. But the most enjoyable part of this series was writing about those ’90s movies that some of you had a soft spot for that most of us here agree were/are underappreciated.
My choices aren’t scientific enough to really give an accurate idea of how summer movies have changed over the 26 years I covered, except for this: it seems like studios are less presumptuous about selling action figures and food tie-ins and shit than they used to be. That’s maybe a positive thing? But we’re missing out on the weird little R.I.P.D. Happy Meal Toys that could’ve existed.
If you enjoy these more detailed review series, please consider tossing a few bucks in my Patreon to help get me more time off to work on them. You’re still my bud if you don’t but I just have to throw in a plug every now and then, you understand. I’m trying to get this thing rolling.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.