Thursday, 8 September 2016

Review: Ben-Hur (2016)

Ben-Hur (2016 / 2D)
Cert: 12A / 123 mins / Dir. Timur Bekmambetov / Trailer

Full disclosure, I haven't seen the 1959 movie Ben-Hur. And as much as I quite enjoyed this new remake, I don't think I'm going to bother, not least because it's an hour and a half longer than its descendent, and I basically know the story now. Anyhow, everything I'm about to say is based on the premise of me not comparing the film to the original version. I may well have sat comparing it to everything else I've seen, but not the original…

Plot: Roman urchin Messala is Jewish prince Judah's adopted brother. They get on really well. Then the Romans come in and start being dicks to everyone, especially the Jews. This will end well…

So yeah, this was better than I expected it to be. Certainly better than the trailer suggested. Not being versed in this sort of thing (Noah and Exodus don't count), I was pleasantly surprised that the film has a more contemporary angle than most other swords-and-sandals epics (largely because they usually involve dragons or somesuch), and although it's set squarely in Biblical-times, the film doesn't centre on that either*2. Instead, what we get is a fairly ageless story of sibling love, rivalry and the struggle between family loyalty and broader morality.

Although y'know, it's sadly ironic that Morgan Freeman was once employed to give a middling film a boost of credibility and gravitas, yet now the same actor in the same roles serves the exact opposite purpose. His opening narration here sets the tone for things to come, and he's wheeled out by the screenplay later like a Biblical Yoda*1. Luckily, the film doesn't depend on him as the rest of the cast are taking things seriously; Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell and Nanzanin Boniadi particularly.

Sure, the film is a solid 9 on the cheese-scale, but it's earnestly acted by a cast who've got the chops to make a decent job of the script. That said, it's a shame that much of the incidental dialogue sounds like it was improvised on the same day that the director decided he was just going to go with the first-take of everything. The accents are all over the place, pretty much all of the time, but since none of the characters would have been speaking English anyway, it doesn't matter somehow (although the ADR during Boniadi's conversational scenes is atrocious).

I was also amazed at the number of Monty Python callbacks in this movie, most of which I'd guess were unintentional. Classic feed-lines from The Life of Brian and Holy Grail pop up left, right and centre. And I could have sworn blind that after escaping the galley-shipwreck to a deserted beach, the bearded and bedraggled Judah was going to re-enact this classic. Probably just as well he didn't, I suppose.

Oh and I can't be certain, but it looks like Ben-Hur is wearing jeans at one point. Or jeggings at best. And he's definitely wearing leather trousers later on. I'm not sure how historically accurate the wardrobe is in this movie. It's also worth mentioning that the final lap of the chariot-race seems to be the olden-days equivalent of the Fast & Furious runway, too. It takes bloody ages and there's not a slow-motion shot to be seen.

Al in all, Ben-Hur is surprisingly not awful.
I mean, it's pretty far from being 'great', but I'll take what I can, when I can get it…

So, watch this if you enjoyed?
The original, I guess.
Although if you're like me and haven't seen that, then I'm going to say Monty Python movies and most ridiculous films where people wear sandals

Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
Credit where it's due, the sea-battle and chariot-race look pretty damned good on a big screen.

Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
I think it does
Although I don't think the film's intentions as a remake were entirely altruistic to begin with

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
With the best will in the world, absolutely not.

Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?

Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
I'm pretty sure I heard one in the sea-battle sequence.
There's a lot of screaming in there

Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: This film's got Toby Kebbell in it, and he performed additional-voice work for Star Wars: The Old Republic, and as much as you think that doesn't really count, I assure you it does.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Or more properly Qui-Gon Jinn, given his role in the third-act. I know the Podrace in The Phantom Menace was inspired by the original Ben-Hur, but the favour seems to have been repaid tenfold in this movie. I'm sure you'll correct me if I'm mistaken about that.

*2 I have to admit it tickled me no end that Jesus (yeah, that one) is reduced to cameo-scenes in this movie, basically turning up every time there's a scuffle and getting everyone to chill out a bit. If I didn't know better, I'd swear that director Timur subscribes to the theory raised by Richard Herring that "yeah, Jesus was just a guy who lived around those times, you know? Like, going around and doing good things". Don't bother frowning or lecturing about this, I'm going to hell anyway. Might as well be qualified when I get there ;)

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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