Film Review: Ben-Hur (M) (USA, 2016) wasted by an ending so dumb it Ben-Hurts

No one asked for the remake of arguably the biggest Hollywood epic of all time. And yet, for some obscure ($) reason, the universe decided the 1959 classic Ben-Hur must be done again. And this time, it has Morgan Freeman in dreadlocks.

We all know the story. Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a wealthy Jewish man from Jerusalem, whose adopted Roman brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) accuses him of treason. So he enters a life of slavery, and through a series of events returns to his home seeking revenge against his once-kin, culminating in the greatest chariot race in cinematic history. Or at least, that’s what the original was.

In saying that, it’s easy to walk into the cinema expecting Kazakh-Russian director Timur Nuruakhitovich (Night Watch) to screen the biggest flop of the year. But setting those expectations aside, Ben-Hur begins rather strongly. The central characters are explored fairly deeply before any conflict begins, and when the conflict does occur it makes sense. It flows well, and you question why you were ever worried in the first place. Everyone does their job well, with Hurston and Kebbell proving that they are actors to be reckoned with, and all the elements coming together in a cohesive thread.

Where Nuruakhitovich’s remake goes wrong are the points where he decides ‘I can, so I will.’ The mark of a good director is equally what they actively do, but also how they restrain themselves from doing too much. It’s a common, and valid, criticism of Tim Burton and Shayamalan with reference to their styles, but Nuruakhitovich doesn’t explore a unique style. What he does is throw in small, initially inconsequential decisions, then overuses them in a way that detracts significantly from the overall experience.

For example, the film begins with a strong understanding of camerawork and how to use shaky cam, but for some strange reason decides during the infamous chariot race to employ a sporadic use of Go-Pros that immediately draws the audience from the tension they spent so much time building. Then there’s the wildly miscast Morgan Freeman, who doesn’t even try to mask the fact he’s been called in purely for his narration as he doesn’t attempt to hide his accent behind the ridiculous white dreadlocks glued to his scalp.

The original was also famous for skirting around the biblical context within which it existed, with an uncredited cameo by Jesus. Nuruakhitovich decides, however, that Jesus must now play a much larger role in the grand scheme of the plot and becomes so integral that it crosses the line from cleverly formulated commentary to a film so preachy it’ll only be bought on DVD by youth groups who want action and blood with a contradictory Christian message.

This leads us to the films ending.

Audiences for the most part enjoyed the characters and tension interwoven throughout the first two acts of the film, building up eventually to the biggest concern – the chariot race – which is surprisingly well orchestrated with suspense and action that keep audiences on the edge of their seats, despite Go-Pros and subtle racism. But then the ending happened. And it ruined the entire film. It’s a deus ex machina on a scale so cheesy it might as well be Parmesan. When a single, God-instigated event draws everyone together, cures all ills and reunites characters without any sense of rationality or necessity, it undermines all the film has built up and no matter how well the first two acts are pieced together, they will always be made futile knowing they lead to a supernatural mess.

What could have been an entertaining popcorn flick turns into a Christian promo video with good talent wasted and clever storytelling plummeting after two strong acts into a conclusion so dumb it Ben-Hurts.

Review Score: TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Ben Hur is in cinemas now.

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