Let’s get the most important thing out of the way first. The chariot race in the new Ben-Hur is pretty good. When wronged Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) finally gets his chance to settle matters with his Roman best-friend-turned-nemesis Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell) in the big race at Judea’s branch of the Circus Maximus, the spectacle is a bit dusty but just as exciting as the set pieces in earlier film versions.
Director Timur Bekmambetov naturally reaches for CGI — mechanized large-scale crowd shots alternate with cast-of-dozens fill-ins, for instance — but the thrust of the action never slackens, and he wisely decides not to exactly duplicate the stunts from the 1959 William Wyler/Charlton Heston race. The contestants’ strategies are realistic, and we get to witness some of the dangers of being a track attendant, the poor guys whose job is to clear away the broken bodies before the next chariot comes by.
We’re going to spoil the plot a little now, by necessity, to talk about the new movie’s slant on an old subject. So stop reading here if you don’t know the story.
The dilemma behind this 2016 entry is the same one that faced the 1907, 1925, and 1959 productions: Just how much weight should we give to the story’s religious underpinnings as opposed to the bracingly cinematic misadventures of the unlucky Judah, sentenced to galley slavery, his family dispersed and dispossessed, for a crime he did not commit? Bekmambetov, who made the epic Dada whatsis Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, isn’t exactly the first director we might think of for Ben-Hur, but he gives the material a comparatively sincere, straightforward shot, as a portrait of turbulent times in the Middle East, circa 33 CE. He’s helped along his thorny path by a screenplay from Keith R. Clarke (The Way Back) and John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), who picture Judah and Messala’s falling-out as an offshoot of national liberation struggles by Jewish freedom fighters opposing the Roman Empire. The two men are boyhood chums but their tribes clash.
Huston, London-born grandson of director John Huston, does a creditable job with his complicated character, part swashbuckler, part peacemaker, full-time victim. But gormless Toby Kebbell, another British actor, is miscast as the haughty Messala. The supporting characters are a curious bunch. Morgan Freeman takes the corny role of an Arab horse breeder who saves Judah when he’s washed up. The part of Jesus Christ (Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro) is actually beefed up compared to earlier versions — he has lines of dialogue, and in one scene intervenes to stop a public stoning. Meanwhile, Judah’s mother and daughter are only briefly dealt with in their leper cave, while Judah’s long-suffering girlfriend Esther (Iranian actress Nazanin Boniadi) emerges as an early Christian. We’re completely flabbergasted by the abruptly “miraculous” ending, presided over by Freeman’s narration, in which the entire cast gazes heavenward, inspired by the newly risen Christ. Whew.
Born-again dubiousness aside, most of the film’s shortcomings stem from the awkward combo of modern-day grotesquerie and fluffy romantic exoticism. In the early parts, Judah’s horseback jaunt with Esther has an unmistakable Franco Zeffirelli tinge to it. We keep expecting to see Montagues and Capulets pop up in place of Israelites and Romans. Life below decks in the galley is suitably grotty, but, as with the rest of the film — shot by cinematographer Oliver Wood of Bourne fame — the settings are drowned in washed-out tones of gray. A crowd-pleasing Biblical action movie should ideally be bold and colorful. So we can see the blood.
All this begs the question of why we need to remake beloved epics in the first place. If we’re going to chew over Ben-Hur again it needs a radical rethinking, and Bekmambetov & Co. are not the ones to rethink it. It might have been better as a two-hour chariot race, in real time, in gaudy Technicolor, with lots more hamming by Pontius Pilate. But let’s wait another sixty years.