Review: Ben-Hur (2016)

(Note: this capsule review is part of my farewell to the Netflix DVD service. #GetThroughMyQueue)

Come on, I can’t just stop with one version of Ben-Hur, right? Unlike the mini-series from yesterday, this had been on my list for a while, though I knew it wasn’t well received.

Timur Bekmambetov, of Night Watch and Day Watch fame, employs some visual panache, the script by Keith Clarke and John Ridley has some flair, and the art direction is top notch. Seriously, the spectacle and sense of period works for me. Plus, they manage to fully utilize Morgan Freeman in the “we can afford to pay Morgan Freeman” role, in this case, ensuring the supporting role of the Sheik is substantial enough for Freeman to employ his gravitas. It works. There’s other good members of the supporting cast from James Cosmo, who I swear has played “the old guy” for about 30 years, as Quintus Arius, to Pilou Asbæk, whom you may remember as one of the Game of Thrones villians most in need of repeated face punches, as Pontius Pilate.

Seriously, with the budget and extra heft behind this production, it should be better than the mini-series. And yet, the ending just dissolves into vaguely motivated forgiveness that leaves crippled Messala happily riding off with the gang ‘to the sunset,’ then followed by over-the-top CGI end credits that haven’t gotten over the high-octane chariot race and backed up by a pop tune so mismatched that it takes you out of any sense of period the production design worked so hard to deliver — and places you in some song-driven montage in a random CW show.

Look, I’m not saying we need absolute fidelity to the book, which has Balthazar’s daughter murder Messala in a subplot I don’t recall seeing on screen. Nor do we need to mirror the 1959’s version which simplifies Messala’s character arc by just letting him die trying to enrage Judah Ben-Hur one last time. I don’t even have a problem with CW shows per se, they just have no place in my historical epics, dangit.

For feature films, payoffs are paramount. You need to leave the theater (or your couch) satisfied on one or more levels.

Sadly, this one gets two stars out of five. Morgan Freeman’s gravitas only goes so far.

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