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IGNORE THE CRITICS! Go See the ‘Ben Hur’ Remake

When I first saw the trailer for this year’s Ben Hur, I was intrigued; also mildly skeptical: Why remake one of the greatest films ever released? Or mess with the formula that gave us a 1959, Academy-Award-heavy epic that holds up well even under modern scrutiny? As the venerable maxim puts it: if it ain’t broke …

I thought this revamped Ben Hur‘s promotional clips looked promising — but have learned the hard way that can be misleading; sometimes a new flick’s trailer is the best it’ll ever look.

I’m not, furthermore, one of those ticket-buyers who tosses thumbs up at films just for passing along “Christian” sentiments; which was marketed as a signal selling point of this Paramount/MGM project. If a movie presents the gospel but is shabbily acted? Clunkily written or directed? Hosts cheapo production values? — I’m not going to pretend it was mesmerizing, sorry; not built that way. Having endured enough evangelistic theatrical kitsch — heart in the right place, quality wincingly amateurish and slipshod — I reflexively approach “Christian” films with a dose of trepidation.

Plus — I’m being blunt here — the Mark Burnett/Roma Downey element wasn’t exactly a draw for me. They produced this reboot and seem like genuinely sincere, decent folks; and I so appreciate their resolve to bring edifying entertainment — including overtly biblical/Christian fare — to the television set or local cine-plex. That said, I haven’t been blown away by their past media products. I never developed any enthusiasm for Touched by an Angel. By my estimation, their The Bible series was okay: competently executed, certainly well-intentioned. AD: The Bible Continues? Son of God? I confess, I felt compelled to watch neither (largely because of my “meh” reaction to The Bible) — so I didn’t. The glimpses I did catch of each? They struck me as adequate but not particularly riveting.

So, that said, I wasn’t committed to sink ten bucks into this fresh, filmic stab at the travails of Judah Ben Hur. Then I heard Glenn Beck’s very excited comments on the movie — inclining me to reconsider, to give it a shot.

Well, the film opened — and crashed like one of those chariots in the movie’s iconic climax. Reviews were generally dismal; the box-office, relatedly, catastrophic.

The Hollywood Reporter: “‘Ben-Hur’ Faces Epic $120M Loss as Summer’s Biggest Box-Office Bust”

Variety: “‘Ben-Hur’ Could Lose $100 Million at Box Office”

My desire to patronize the flick fizzled. Rapidly.

Ben Hur was rapidly vanishing from movie houses, likely enjoying its final American screenings, when I came across columnist Cal Thomas’ written evaluation of the film: he raved about it:

It could have been melodramatic and unconvincing, but [the stars and director] make it work … In the not-too-distant past, faith-based movies, if they were made at all, suffered from low budgets and tackiness and were often too preachy. Not this Ben-Hur … It stands on its own as entertainment, but entertainment with a purpose. Go see it. You won’t be disappointed.

So, yet again, I changed my mind, tracked down one of the few nearby multi-plexes still featuring the drama and went to see the remodeled Ben Hur.

My verdict? Cal Thomas got it right. This one deserves a gander; probably only possible as a rental at this juncture, but certainly worth the time and dollar investment.

Let’s be straightforward: no, this Ben Hur is not the vast technicolor epic that was the 1959 rendering of Lew Wallace’s Christ-honoring novel. It is, however, a solidly-crafted and involving account of tragedy, revenge and redemption.

First off, the movie is visually handsome, its CGI effects striking, it’s commanding location shots engaging, evoking atmosphere and authenticity. Plainly, no penny-pinching, minimalist effort by Burnett/Downey and Co. here. Ben Hur‘s two centerpiece action sequences — a sea battle involving Roman and Greek war ships as chained slaves literally row for their lives and the aforementioned roaring melee around the chariot course — are spectacular. Thrilling and chilling.

Some gripe lead actor Jack Huston is not Charlton Heston. Well, no — but then, who is? He’s not the glowering, bigger-than-life, intermittent-scenery-chewer that Heston could be, but Huston gets the job done and is compelling in a number of passages depicting a tormented Jewish prince who loses everything to diabolical betrayal, barely survives, seethes with retaliatory lust and ultimately undergoes a moving personal transformation.

Ben Hur‘s performances overall are capable, including an especially potent turn by Toby Kebbell as despicably disloyal Roman centurion Massala. Unexpectedly, it’s Morgan Freeman who comes off the weak link in this saga’s acting department. His portrayal of an exotic horse breeder/trainer is spotty, often by-the-numbers, reciting his lines without much emotional investment. Methinks the superstar dropped in on this one pretty much for the paycheck?

This movie is noticeably too short, nearly ninety minutes briefer than its fifty-seven-year-old predecessor (which clocked in at well over three hours). Its tale is vast, sweeping — not a narrative to be related in one-hundred-twenty-three minutes without something meaningful giving way. In this instance, that something is the final reel which — the bravura chariot extravaganza decidedly excepted — seems hurried-along, rather slapdash. Another twenty minutes of nuanced plot development/dialogue? That would have inarguably been a beneficial addition.

One more observation (I can’t believe I’m writing this): from an artistic perspective, the “less is more” rule should have been applied to this movie’s depiction of Jesus. One reason the Savior’s appearance in 1959’s iteration was so memorable? He was sketched more a looming, all-pervading-but-in-the-background presence than an in-your-face, platitude-spouting supporting character. Rodrigo Santoro does his best as this Ben Hur‘s Son of God, dropping conspicuously in and out of the happenings, hitting his marks; but I’d have preferred a more intimated portrait (although I admit, I found deeply effecting the protagonist’s tearful, foot-of-the-cross conversion.)

Still, I need mention part of me sincerely wonders if not a few of Ben Hur‘s demeaning appraisals issued from those who’d prefer Jesus remain absent from moviemaking altogether.

No, this is not a watershed, unforgettable film for the ages. Neither is it the sword-and-sandal train wreck you’d conclude from some of its scowling reviews. Ben Hur 2016 is a more-or-less adroit reimagining of a beloved story, relaying a hopeful note — one, I’m pretty sure, would do Planet Earth 2016 some good.

Those who’d welcome greater cinematic choices like this movie, courtesy of Tinsel Town, ought to do their part — verbally, practically, financially — to endorse it.

Image:Screen Shot: Ben Hur Trailer;;

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Steve Pauwels

Steve Pauwels is pastor of Church of the King, Londonderry, NH and host of Striker Radio with Steve Pauwels on the Red State Talk Radio Network. He's also husband to the lovely Maureen and proud father of three fine sons: Mike, Sam and Jake.