There seems to be only one reason to remake the Charlton Heston classic, “Ben-Hur”- the chariot race.
While the original’s epic scene still holds up, there’s no doubt directors, stunt coordinators and digital wizards itching to give it a 21st century makeover.
However surface level that motivation may be, I’m happy to report the chariot race in the 2016 “Ben-Hur [Blu-ray]” is damn fine cinema.
“Wanted” director Timur Bekmambetov is in his element with the sequence. He even teases the spectacle at the beginning before our story has even begun playing out.
The only other real update to “Ben-Hur” is perhaps the dialing up ideas of faith and the actual character of Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro). With “The Bible” and “Son of God” producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey behind the MGM remake, it’s a surprise the elements end up feeling as organic as they do.
“Ben-Hur” tells the story of a peaceful Jewish man, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), living in Jerusalem. The Romans rule the land, demanding subservience. Judah merely wants to stay out of trouble and live peacefully with his mother, sister and adopted brother (Toby Kebbell).
FAST FACT: The chariot race sequence from 1959’s “Ben Hur” cost $4 million, roughly a fourth of the film’s overall budget and required 10 weeks to complete.
After events land Ben-Hur in enslavement and Kebbel leading Roman forces, a story of revenge ensues. The narrative is gently peppered by preachings of Christ and forgiveness.
It’s impossible for this remake to not live in the shadow of the Heston version. The man was inhuman. On screen, he seemed to stand taller than other men, speak with a thunderous, yet soothing voice, and capture the undivided attention of anyone watching. He was put on Earth to do one thing above all else -- lead some timeless movies.
He did just that.
Huston, Kebbel, and the rest of the new “Ben-Hur’s” cast are fine actors, but they never do anything different enough to claw their way out from under Heston’s version. Still, the fact that this movie works on any level whatsoever could be called an act of God.
Besides the engaging chariot race (created with minimal digital wizardry), there’s a battle scene at sea in which Judah makes his escape from enslavement. The film hits a fever pitch here, long before Judah climbs aboard his chariot.
In these two sequences, Bekmambetov comes alive behind the screen, using first-person shots and just enough cuts to get your heart’s blood pumping. These long sequences alone are reason enough to drop some dollars on “Ben-Hur.”
The faith-based scenes work far better than they probably should. Many recent Christian movies have come across as pushy and preachy. “Ben-Hur” uses a light touch and shows stories of faith can actually work when real artists are holding the reigns. Beyond Bekmambetov behind the camera, Academy Award winner John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”) is co-handling writing duties.
It’s impossible for this remake to not live in the shadow of the Heston version.
Having initially failed at the box office, “Ben-Hur” is surprisingly relevant for our times. Morgan Freeman’s character, basically the same as every other Freeman character of late, convinces Judah to take part in a chariot race as a form of revenge.
His descriptions of the power of story, entertainment, and spectacle feel so close to discussions of the power of pop culture in culture wars today, it’s eerie. The fact that this is a glossy, faith-friendly movie aimed at right of center audiences make the points all the more important.
The remake won’t be remembered the same way as Heston’s three hour plus epic. It still deserves a second chance on home video.
“Ben-Hur [Blu-ray]” bursts with special features including music videos, deleted and extended scenes, and features examining the chariot race production. Now, we know the daunting task behind remaking one of Hollywood’s most well known scenes.