“It costs a lot of money to look this cheap” was a quote by musician, and rather impressive philosopher, Dolly Parton, and it’s a line that is somewhat emblematic of Timur Bekmambetov’s superfluous Ben-Hur remake, which had a budget of an estimated 100 million dollars. And yet you certainly wouldn’t think so looking at it – doing little but highlighting the sheer redundancy of the project, as the overriding sense of futility lingers over this underwhelming picture.
Jack Huston plays Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince who longs to be reunited, peacefully, with his adopted brother Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell) who fled from his home to become a high-ranking officer of the Roman legions. Though bound together by a close family bond – the pair share contrasting political beliefs, and Messala makes his estranged sibling a prisoner of the Romans, sending him off to the galleys. But Ben-Hur is hellbent on taking revenge, returning to his homeland and overthrowing the Empire, and defeating Messala, all building up towards an emotionally charged, epic chariot race between the two.
You only have to look at recent blockbuster history to see just how well these historical epics are fairing at present amongst cinema goers and critics alike. 300 was a riotous success, but then more recently you have Gods of Egypt and Exodus: Gods and Kings, and it makes you wonder why filmmakers are so inclined to persist? If it’s not an eagerly anticipated sequel such as Jurassic World, or based on a comic-book – like the vast majority of blockbusters nowadays, there’s little guarantee you’ll be sitting on a hit, and with Ben-Hur it was quite easy to tell this would be a flop right from the very moment it was first announced. The lack of a true Hollywood star in either of the two lead roles will make it that little bit harder to secure bums on sets, even if Morgan Freeman does take on a supporting role as Ilderim – lending his indelible narrational talents to the production, which while working as a source of comfortability, are sadly far from being the stamp of quality it may have once signified. Kebbell and Huston turn in more than accomplished displays, though question marks over the former’s choice of project at present do exist, as the incredibly talented actor has a knack for picking rather terrible blockbusters, in a year where we’ve seen him take on integral parts in Warcraft and Fantastic Four.
Ben-Hur is a decent enough flick, and the set-pieces are impressive, particularly the aforementioned chariot race, which is the one stand-out scene in the feature. But the film cost 100 million dollars and it can be a struggle not to judge in accordance with that fact, a bit like a footballer signing for an absurd fee – you can’t not use that as a means of analysing their performances. So while watchable and entertaining in parts, it is hard not to think about that insane amount of money, and just think about what could have been done with it instead. With not remaking Ben-Hur very high up on the list of things that may cross your mind.