Fighting against the remake machine is perhaps a fruitless endeavor. This is no trend; Hollywood has been retelling stories for as long as people have been attending theaters. And the reasoning is often sound when the intention isn’t safe and cynical: good source material withstands many interpretations, and some generations are just ripe for modern versions of familiar stories.
So any outrage surrounding the latest redo, Timur Bekmambetov’s “Ben-Hur,” feels particularly unwarranted. Granted, this new iteration is the fifth variation of its kind (sixth, if you count the mini-series), but it is easy forget that when the quintessential William Wyler-directed, Charles Heston-starring “Ben-Hur” swept the 1960 Oscars, it was doing so as the third on-screen translation of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel. And Bekmambetov’s is quite entertaining, if somewhat insubstantial.
Even outside of the various remakes of Wallace’s novel, the premise is not an unfamiliar one, but with the help of some minor changes, it still works in spite of its predictability. Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Roman orphan Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell) grow up as brothers in Jerusalem; a triumphant example of unity in the time of Pontius Pilate’s (Pilou Asbæk) oppressive rule. In an attempt to make a name for himself outside that of his adoptive family, Messala sets off to join the Roman centuriate and the two siblings are separated. Years pass before their reunion, and after a series of circumstances regarding the fate of a young zealot, Messala ruthlessly sentences his former family to the crucifix and Judah to the slave ships for treason.
Now, Bekmambetov certainly is no Wyler, but his reimagining still manages to carry a sense of grandeur and epic scale and does so in streamlined fashion. Edited for the modern attention spans (good luck keeping people in the seats for 4 hours in this day and age), the initial act, which begins with fanfare in media res eight years in the future near the end of the film, wastes no time returning to it, setting up familiar themes of redemption and forgiveness in the process. Looking backwards only in split-second flashbacks which remind us of ideal pasts and wrongdoings burned into memory, the film quickly moves into the vital second chapter, which jumps straight into the action, and develops the characters’ arcs.
Exercising a great understanding of time, quick jump cuts in the early scenes condense years into mere frames in a fluid and effective fashion. Despite these abbreviations, the movie still hits many of the needed beats, though the odd scene still scrambles for emotional resonance that is not supported by the rest of the flick: Judah’s relationship with his mother and sister is fairly undeveloped (but the excursions that remind us of the pain from their separation are brief). Apart from this, a large portion of the movie does work. The two most important relationships — Judah and his former-servant wife, and Judah and Messala — are well established and compelling, allowing the emotions surrounding them to be fully felt.
Portrayed by the untested but charismatic Huston, the title character’s initially outward sense of compassion, innocence, and humanity is quickly hardened by the rigors of slavery. A memorable flash forward into the future introduces us to the new Ben-Hur, sitting at his bench in the galleys, gentler features erased by dead, hopeless eyes and a raggedy beard. With the pacifist protagonist now hellbent on revenge against his brother, the film takes on a gritty sheen to match that rarely disappears. Acting as strong counterbalance, Kebbell’s Messala is never painted as simply the incorrigible villain. The movie justifies Messala’s decision to punish his loved ones, even in spite of his remorselessness afterwards, with understandable and unspoken characterization. It is a refreshing notion: while a shallower film would have just vilified him, this one allows him the opportunity to become a character with depth.
Known for directing 2008’s “Wanted” and 2012’s “Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter,” Bekmambetov again is no master filmmaker. There are lots of aesthetic issues, many of them inconsistent in quality: the visual effects are not outright convincing, but used with just enough thrift to retain believability; the score is bland but still evocative. Oliver Wood’s cinematography is far more coherent here than in his work in the Bourne trilogy, but it’s still shaky cam, and saddled with problems inherent in that style.
There are strengths however. Huston and Kebbell along with the rest of the cast put forward good performances, convincingly embodying the growth that they undertake in the long years that the film covers. Huston in particular remarkably makes the transition without ever losing sympathy, and makes for a very watchable hero. And by the end, the action promised by the film’s opening moments is fulfilled by various sequences that actually thrill — building up to the iconic chariot races with hardly a moment’s rest.
For all of its action bluster, however, “Ben-Hur” pushes a hopefulness that differentiates itself heavily from its past forms, as well as revenge flicks in general. With biblical morals which root themselves in forgiving thy neighbor and loving thy enemy over avenging oneself, the film adapts itself for this modern age, finding relevance in its refusal to condone outright retribution. In a recent interview, Bekmambetov stated “humanity has to learn how to love and forgive,” an admittedly easily sentiment to agree with. But by making a film, cheesy as it is, which culminates with a cathartic sense of forgiveness, he thereby puts his money where his mouth is. Perhaps our world, as incendiary as it currently is, could use a bit more of this wishful optimism.
In spite of its various imperfections, “Ben-Hur” always manages to entertain, proving the timelessness of epic structure and scale. And even if nothing about the movie particularly stands out on its own, when all the pieces come together, one cannot help but feel immersed in the world and the ideals presented. Bekmambetov has sufficiently made a film for this generation, one which tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur on its own terms. Like the characters and religious, generally humane theme that encompasses it, “Ben-Hur,” though flawed, is a redeemable film. [B-/C+]