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Review: ‘Ben-Hur’ remake was almost a decent film but it crashes before the finish line

2016-08-26-Ben-Hur-movie-posterBy MARK VIOLA

I’m betting by now you’re tired of hearing me rant about remakes. Frankly, I’m tired of ranting about remakes. Maybe if the vast majority of remakes weren’t obvious cash grabs and instead serious attempts to improve on the original works, I wouldn’t have to rant so much. But they are cash grabs, so I do.

And even if I were to make a pledge to stop ranting about remakes, which I’m not, I would still have to set some ground rules, specifically making a list of movies that simply don’t need to be touched. And while I’m not going to waste time actually developing such a list, because I haven’t make a pledge to stop ranting about remakes, that list would probably include the three films which have earned a record 11 Academy Awards, one of which is 1959’s “Ben-Hur.” And yes, technically that film was a remake since there had been two previous silent-film adaptations of Lew Wallace’s novel in 1907 and 1925. But once a film accomplishes what the 1959 version did, you should just stop trying. And with the exception of a 2003 animated film, they had. But this is 2016, so of course we have a “Ben-Hur” remake.

Despite my obvious despair that this new version even exists, I did go into it attempting to give it the benefit of the doubt. Really, I did. Now, there are two ways to go about remaking a classic like “Ben-Hur.” The first is to attempt to recreate the prestige-film quality of the original, something we simply don’t get much anymore. The second is to make a generic action film based on the original story.

If the trailers weren’t proof enough, five minutes into this movie you’ll know for sure that the filmmakers here, including director Timur Bekmambetov (“Wanted,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”), went the second route. And honestly, for the first three quarters of this movie, they had a passable if uninspired generic action movie on their hands thanks to few entertaining sequences and a solid lead performance. But in the final act, and especially the last 20 minutes, the film’s mounting pacing problems finally spill over, robbing the story of any emotional weight and turning a passable movie into one I can only recommend you simply pass.

Before I get into the negatives, let me say there are some solid sequences in this movie, especially a naval battle in the second act as well as the final chariot race, which make the most of the film’s overuse of handheld camera work to make some downright entertaining moments.

I also want to credit Jack Huston (“Boardwalk Empire”), who really tries to imbue Ben-Hur with a lot of emotion and empathy, despite the fact that the film wastes it all in the end.

And speaking of that ending, the problems lie in the pacing. The 1959 version of this movie is an eye-draining three hours, 45 minutes. The 2016 edition is right at two hours, but attempts to tell the same story, so obviously, the pacing needs to be faster. Aside from some awkward time jumps, the first act of the movie survives this, but the further we get into the movie, the problems only grow larger. I would liken to a cake decorator who is trying to write “Happy Birthday” on a cake, and upon reaching the “B” in birthday realizes there is not going to be enough room so he starts making the letters thinner and thinner until you can only barely make out the “y.”

That is this move in a nutshell. The entire story rests on the audience believing the emotional payoff at the end, when several characters make some serious realizations. And the payoff here falls completely flat. Nothing that happens in the final 20 minutes of this movie, from an emotional standpoint, feels even remotely believable. The decisions the characters make are not natural or based on anything we’ve seen presented in the film, but instead they appear to be making these decisions because the script told them to.

This movie was never going to be great, but it was passable entertainment until the final act. To reference the recently concluded Olympics, if “Ben-Hur” was a sprinter, it tripped and fell flat on its face about five feet before the finish line. And in films, that doesn’t earn you a silver medal.

The movie is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images.

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