Like it or not, MGM’s forthcoming update on cinema masterpiece Ben-Hur is very much a thing; the studio is banging the “source material” drum along the way to production, asserting that their fresh take on the classic historical tale of betrayal and redemption will hew closer to author Lew Wallace’s original 1880 novel (the first work of fiction to ever receive the Pope’s blessing).
They’re taking the project seriously, at least; they’ve already secured the screenwriting talents of Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave scribe John Ridley, and the directorial skills of Timur Bekmambetov, a filmmaker best known for 2008’s Wanted but who rose to prominence helming Night Watch, one of the first Russian blockbusters made following the collapse of the Soviet film industry, back in 2004. Not a bad hire, particularly in light of both movies’ respective box office success.
Now Deadline reports that Ben-Hur ’16 has added another name to the mix (following Morgan Freeman’s signing) – Jack Huston, chiefly recognized for his work as Richard Harrow on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Turns out that Huston has been tapped to portray the film’s title role, which runs counter to prior rumors of MGM courting Tom Hiddleston, the once and future Loki, for the part; yesterday, Hiddleston officially committed to Legendary’s Skull Island (which arrives in Fall 2016), so his schedule might’ve been too packed for him to also commit to this film. (Then again, maybe Huston just looked better as a chariot racer.)
But this just raises the obvious question: is this a good casting call on MGM’s part? By any standards, acquiring Huston is a pretty big win – Boardwalk Empire saddled him with one of its most richly layered and complex characters, a (literally) scarred enigma of a man defined by his loyalty and at odds with his military past. His efforts on that series alone prove Huston’s wide range as a performer. If he can make a tin-masked assassin sympathetic, it stands to reason that he can weave a similar spell portraying Ben-Hur’s own fall from grace after being backstabbed by his best friend.
Whether Ben-Hur winds up being a help or a hindrance to Huston’s career, however, depends much more on the studio’s plan to sell the Biblical epic to a modern audience. In that respect, it’s possible that Ben-Hur could be better served by wrangling a more recognizable name – someone with greater cultural cachet among mainstream audiences. That being said, Huston has chops that demand respect, and seeing him transition from a disfigured war veteran turned mob enforcer to a Jewish merchant prince turned vengeful galley slave (and eventual champion charioteer) should prove interesting.
Let’s see what he can do with the part, in other words. For Marvel fans, this might be a disappointment – being in Ben-Hur almost assuredly puts him out of contention to play Stephen Strange, given MGM’s bid to get their movie into theaters by 2016. If that feels like a letdown, consider that Ben-Hur remains one of Charlton Heston’s signature performances; watching Huston take on the challenge of matching Heston’s efforts in the 1959 film should be just as exciting, if not more so, as seeing him set foot in the MCU.
Ben-Hur opens in theaters on February 26th, 2016.