Those who saw the Angelina Jolie action film, ‘Wanted’ will be familiar with the bullet bending, gravity defying madness of all of unpronounceable Russian director Timor Bekmambetov films, a genre of insane action scenes that has also led him to produce the recent ‘Hardcore Henry’ the world’s first person shoot-em-up gamer experience as a feature film. So it was only natural that he should be the man to direct classic heavyweight biblical epic Ben Hur……or not…. because frankly it’s a bit like Michael Bay directing ‘Pride and Prejudice’.
Having been made a number of times before its the 1959 version that is best known primarily for its infamous chariot race and this version gives the audience a hint as to what’s to come with its opening scene featuring the race just as it starts before flitting back eight years before where Jack Huston as a somewhat vanilla Ben Hur and his adopted brother, Masala (why he’s named after a curry is anyone’s guess) played by the ever reliable Toby Kebbell, race through the fields on horseback with a sonorous voiceover from Morgan Freeman as they indulge in their life of luxury. It’s Kebbell though who is disenchanted with his life never really feeling part of the family and keen to make his own name by joining the invading Roman army which he duly does returning some time later as a captain ordered to rid the city of rebels which he goes about by getting them to cooperate with the locals rather than against them as an invading occupier hell bent on suppressing the insurgents – it’s an all too obvious critique of the Allied forces ill considered consequences of invading Afghanistan. He ropes in his brother on his behalf to try and persuade the locals so as to avoid the wholesale bloodshed that the other roman soldiers are so keen on. And all would have been fine if Benny boy had not been harbouring an injured insurgent back to health who repays him by making an unsuccessful assassination attempt on an Emperor. With Kebbell now in an untenable position and humiliated by what’s happened our man Ben is enslaved as a big boat rower.
It’s here that director Bekmambetov comes into his own with his action credentials with a well orchestrated sea battle all viewed from the slaves galley and for a director who revels in ludicrous gravity defying set pieces its remarkably restrained though equally for such a big budget film its economically shot being confined as it is to below decks offering only glimpses through the portholes of what’s going on outside and with Huston escaping the sinking ship he’s rescued by Morgan Freeman bewigged in droopy dreadlocks and a robe that looks like Gandalf’s Sunday best. In fact his whole look makes him look like the father of Gary Oldman’s Drexl Spivey in ‘True Romance’. What compounds it further is despite looking like a refugee from Notting Hill carnival he has some unintentional laugh out loud lines the best/worst being, ‘ You can fight them…….in the circus!’ But it’s his character who realises that our Ben is a natural with his horses and that whole film from hereon is geared towards that chariot race. And it here’s that the director gives full vent to the race he’s been desperate to get to after some pretty pedestrian dramatic scenes. It is utterly exhilarating and a totally exhausting watch having reined in his natural predilection for denying the laws of physics. But really this seems the raison ‘d’etre for the whole film and despite paying lip service to the power of forgiveness and redemption illustrated by the scenes with Rodrigo Santoro as Jesus it’s the chariot race which the audience want and expect and which it saves until the end.
Jack Huston as Ben Hur has his work cut out having taken a role which will forever be Charlton Heston and the make up / wardrobe dept run him from an average looking prince to something of a hipster with a groomed beard before sprucing him up with a makeover for the chariot race that make him look like a metrosexual model for Marks and Spencer symbolically dressing him in white (hooray for the good guy) whereas Kebbell is in dark colours therefore he must be a bad guy as they go mano- a-mano.
Mercifully briefer than Heston’s Hur it’s still an odd film to have remade for modern audiences and its flatly lit scenes do it no favours. Bekmambetov was only going to really come into his own in the action scenes which he excels at and which marginally benefit by being in 3D but maybe he should really be given the next Fast and Furious film. Now that would be epic!
Here’s the trailer: