Review by Tyler Hicks
If you like James McAvoy bending bullets and Abraham Lincoln slaying vampires, then the Ben-Hur remake will be right up your alley. In fact, even if you didn’t like those flicks (or have no idea what I’m talking about) you may find this update of the 1959 classic worth a watch. It’s not the brain-dead, effects-heavy slap-in-the-face of classic Hollywood that you might expect, and despite the high bar set by the original, Ben-Hur doesn’t disappoint—it delivers.
Ben-Hur’s greatness is largely due to three important factors: brotherhood, balance and Bekmanbetov.
First, Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell play the brothers at the center of the film to perfection. The story of Ben-Hur has no heart without a terrific Ben-Hur and Messala to lead the way, and this remake’s two leads give more nuanced performances than their 1959 counterparts. The screenplay doesn’t do them many favors, as the men are forced to do some heavy exposition in between painfully corny dialogue. But Huston and Kebbell are professionals in every sense of the word, and they nail all of the complex transformations that their characters go through.
Furthermore, Ben-Hur is balanced in ways that you might not expect. When the director of the aforementioned Wanted and Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer steps in to adapt a classic Hollywood epic, you are either really excited or petrified of what may go wrong. Call me a cynic, but I was in the latter camp. However, the action never drowns out the theme’s deeply religious themes, or vice versa.
That being said, it’s still a Bekmambetov film, so action lovers won’t be disappointed. The chariot scene may be a standout, but a sea battle that takes place early on is just as eye-popping. What’s most stunning about the Russian director’s approach here is his use of GoPro cameras and minimal CGI. The original Ben-Hur cemented itself as an iconic work of art when it debuted its groundbreaking chariot scene, and Bekmambetov pays homage to the realism of that work by not over-indulging with the graphics. Of course, much of the race is supplemented by special effects. But the production team uses CGI tastefully, and gives the main event a grounded, realistic feel that lovers of the original will appreciate.
Speaking of which, Bekmambetov and Co.’s smartest move may have been the decision to never stray too far from the classic. Sure, almost 60 years have passed since Charlton Heston made sandals cool and fashionable (they still are, right?). But the movie’s themes of forgiveness, faith and family are and always will be important and worthy of sharing.
That aforementioned religiosity reaches new heights in this remake, and the film puts Jesus at the center of all the action. It’s frequently forced and preachy, but it ultimately works because of the focus and power of the talented performers. This may be many people’s least favorite part of the flick, but I’ll be the first to admit that not only did I mind it; I found it pretty darn moving.
As I watched Ben-Hur, my sappy, emotional side went to war with the part of me that naturally dislikes remakes. You can judge all you want, but because Ben-Hur is a solid remake, the sappy side reigned victorious.