The Fast and the Furious: Roman Drift
I went into this movie expecting to loathe it. The signs were all there: unnecessary remake of a beloved classic, nothing new to offer this story, crap and confused marketing, and pointless changes to differ from the original. Surprisingly, we didn’t get something atrocious like last year’s terrible Poltergeist, the new Ben-Hur tries to do something new with the material…but the problem is that the movie fails to execute the ideas and comes out as a clumsy mess.
For those who’ve never seen the legendary 1959 Charlton Heston film (itself a remake from a 1925 silent film), Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a Jewish prince living in Jerusalem while under Roman occupation. With him is his adoptive brother Messala (Toby Kebbell), a change from the Heston version where the duo were childhood friends. Messala is a Roman soldier, initially distrusted by everyone in the Hur household save for Judah, but returns to Jerusalem to set the stage for Pontius Pilate to take the region over. Messala is trying to quell rebels in the region, not knowing Judah is hospitalizing one such rebel in his own home. Against Judah’s wishes, the Rebel tries to assassinate Pilate, but Judah takes the fall instead. His brother condemns him to slave away rowing a Roman galley while Judah’s mother and sister are executed. Five years later, Judah manages to escape and he’s back in Jerusalem for some ancient revenge.
The choice to make Judah and Messala brothers is one of the film’s few smart decisions. For one, it makes the division between the two men much more resonsating and far deeper than the childhood friendship they had in Heston’s classic. Further, you’re given a whole 40 minutes of them interacting with each other, and to Huston and Kebbell’s credit, they sell you on the idea that these two guys are very close. Lastly, unlike the Heston film (where Messala brands Judah a traitor for an accident just so he could advance up the Roman ranks), Judah actually keeps secrets from his brother and Messala feels betrayed by the Hur household in general (it also didn’t help that Judah’s mother kept treating him like shit). So, the decision to condemn the house of Hur is far more understandable than “being a dick.”
I was genuinely surprised that the first third of this movie was taking its time setting up the characters, as I was gearing up for an action movie; hell, I was thinking this movie was going to surprise me and wind up with a Matinee or above. But alas, the film was given me false hope as we then journeyed with Judah to his life of a slave and encountered the most glaring issues with this movie: terrible special effects and somehow even worse editing.
You see, Judah only manages to escape from his life as a slave when the Roman fleet he’s slaving for is completely wiped out and he clings to a piece of driftwood for safety. But rather than show you the naval battle where tons of Romans and slaves die horribly in the water, the action is instead limited to what Judah sees inside the boat: him and his rowing team. You only see what’s going on an outside when Judah looks outside through his portholes, and it makes for a visually uninteresting experience devoid of any tension. It’s like focusing on the interior of a simulation ride rather than the thrill ride itself. And to put the cherry on top, what little of the naval battle you see is so heavily and so poorly computer generated that it makes for an absolute waste of space (that takes up a solid 20 minutes of this movie).
The film then goes back to being a drama, throwing in Morgan Freeman as Sheik Ilderim (who pulls double duty as the film’s completely unnecessary narrator) but Freeman sleep walks a lazy performance to mentor Judah. No bond is formed, nothing interesting is developed of their relationship, and it’s all exposition to set up the big chariot sequence for the finale.
Now you would think the filmmakers would make damn sure they get the chariot sequence right here, as it’s the reason why the Charlton Heston film has stood the test of time. But no, we’re dealing with the direction of Timur Bekmambetov, a Russian filmmaker who is all about computer generated images and fuck all else (making him an ideal Hollywood figure). So instead of watching a thrilling race sequence with real horses, most of the horses are digitally enhanced so they can do dangerous stunts that add nothing to the overall experience and is about as interesting as watching NASCAR racing for ten minutes where nothing happens.
This race sequence, like the naval battle before it, is also sloppily edited to boot. You’re thrown around from a bird’s eye view to the ground to the chariot to the horse to an audience to a pit and every other direction. It’s a sad fucking day when I can say that Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace has a better chariot sequence than Ben-Hur. For one, Lucas’ magnum opus manages to track its racers while carefully giving you a sense of scale of the game, while providing you ideas for strategy. Hell the whole sequence lead to two pretty decent video games. But 2016 Ben-Hur‘s chariot race has no focus at all. It’s confusing, it’s jarring, it’s primarily obscured with dust everywhere and the scene takes away any tension you might be feeling for either Messala or Judah.
Speaking of which, the strong first third of the movie gave way to some crap generic revenge dialogue that fails to connect in any way and makes the two leads as emotionally engaging as sock puppets reenacting a Republican primary debate. The two just growl at each other until the very end for the film’s supposed emotional high point, but it’s also tied to the film’s other big departure from the Heston film: Jesus of Nazareth’s role.
So for those who didn’t see the 1959 film, Jesus’ face was actually never shown but he crosses path with Judah in two major scenes of the movie. It was a stylistic choice that worked exceptionally well that also paid tribute to the source material, a book from the 1800s subtitled “A Tale of the Christ.” Because ultimately, the story of Ben-Hur is about a man learning to forgive his enemy and find redemption after being consumed by his thirst for vengeance. A pretty decent set up for a Christian story you might think, and the screenwriter for this remake thought that was a great angle to explore. Unfortunately, like so much else in this movie, the execution was cocked up royal.
For one, Jesus has lines of dialogue here (while being played by Rodrigo Santoro) but its standard fare if you ever went to church in the past 30 years. Secondly, the film clusmily tries to introduce Ben-Hur to Jesus’ message of compassion through Judah’s wife, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) who stops the film dead to give you a homily. To the point I strongly suspected this was meant to be a faith-based film similar to this year’s forgettable Risen. But the message is so inorganically shoved into this supposed epic, that it becomes painfully obvious that the filmmakers had no idea what they were doing. And no where is this more apparent than with the ending that departs dramatically from Heston’s film. So spoiler warning, skip to the final paragraph for the final nails. Everyone else, hop in.
So unlike the 1959 film, Messala actually survives the race. Judah doesn’t see him again until after Judah cries before Jesus’ lifeless body after the Crucifixion and realized he’s killed his brother, sorrowful of what his revenge has wrought. But Esther reveals Messala’s survival, and Judah goes to him. Messala is pretty understandably pissed, vowing to kill Judah. Ben-Hur simply confronts his brother, apologizes and wishes for peace. At that moment, the film came alive again as the brothers embraced to signify their reunion. Then the movie immediately dies again when Judah’s mother and sister are cured of leprosy Messala subjected to them to through rain…oh and they say they’re cured even though they still visibly have leprosy (once again, shitty editing).
But this ending feels painfully unearned, as the relationship didn’t feel all that volatile prior to Messala and Judah making up. While the set up was strong, the middle portion of the movie fails to show these guys constantly fucking with each other all culminating in the iconic chariot sequence. You’d think this is where I’d say that we needed more time with each character…but you were spending time with both of these guys, but their lines got worse as the film progressed and neither actor could carry across the animosity they have towards each other.
This movie felt like someone had a strong new idea for a twist on the original Ben-Hur, one that would appease faith-based audiences more than general audiences. However, the movie’s Christian message felt forced and more tacked on, while the dialogue was boring and forgetful, and the editing kills anyone’s interest in seeing the big set pieces this movie has to offer. And by “big” I mean flat, uninteresting fake images that somehow look worse than one of the shittiest Star Wars films in history. For the strong beginning this movie had, I’m sparing this movie a Bullshit rating; but I’m giving this a painfully low…