124 min. | PG-13
Let it be known: The 2016 version of Ben-Hur is how not to remake a classic.
The 1959 version that won 11 Oscars was itself a remake of a 1925 silent film based on the Lew Wallace novel. The 1959 version did exactly what a remake should: It took the basics of the original, expanded the story and amped up the action. The well-received epic won Oscars for Picture, Director and Lead Actor (Charlton Heston). The 2016 version improves nothing and is a pale imitation.
There’s no way Timur Bekmambetov, director of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, would give us something Oscar-worthy. This remake exists for no reason, and it’s not even good enough to pass as fun popcorn entertainment. The characters, story, dialog and acting are all subpar. They took a classic Hollywood property, threw it in a blender and put it back together with a happy ending.
Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a Jewish prince in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus. His parents adopt a boy named Messala for Judah and his sister Tirzah to play with. Now grown up, Messala and Tirzah are in love, while Judah has feelings for local girl Esther, but at no point do these love stories matter. 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, the other the finale’s chariot race. What’s built around them is a mess: an unconvincing 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 be a good brother and soldier. These elements could’ve made for solid drama, but they’re shakily developed and the actors fail to register the emotion needed to get us involved. On top of it all: Morgan Freeman in the worst dreadlock wig in the history of cinema, nobly narrating the opening moments and trying to keep a straight face in all the absurdity.