Including animation and TV miniseries, this is the sixth adaptation of ‘Ben-Hur’, and that famous one wasn’t even the first. Anyone immediately inclined to cry out blasphemy over this remake’s mere existence needn’t get too upset. We’ve been here before, and chances are we’ll be here again. The real question is whether or not this CGI-enhanced version is any good. That’s far more difficult to answer.
It’s not great, that’s for sure. The film is rather sloppily handled in its storytelling before getting to the big chariot race that is presumably the only reason Russian director Timur Bekmambetov (‘Wanted’, ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’) signed on for this thing. But that climactic action scene is quite good and a few other set-pieces make the movie mildly more entertaining than most contemporary Biblical epics. That doesn’t make up for the fact that this umpteenth ‘Ben-Hur’ adaptation has no particular reason to exist, but it’s something.
The story is pretty much the same as always, though it keeps the lowered attention spans of contemporary audiences in mind. We at least get a taste of the chariot race upfront rather than a more Biblical prologue. From there, it’s back into the routine. We meet the Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and his adopted bro Messala (Toby Kebbell). Ben-Hur was born all rich ‘n stuff, content in his privilege. Messala, on the other hand, is an orphan lucky to be alive, never mind so wealthy, and joins the Roman army to prove his worth. Ben-Hur enjoys a more luxurious life, but has his spirits raised by a few chance encounters by a special bloke named Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro, who brings the sexy back to the son of God). Yadda, yadda, yadda… things go wrong. There’s betrayal and conspiracy, and Ben-Hur ends up a slave. He becomes driven by vengeance against his brother and it all leads back to that chariot race we’ve all been waiting for.
This is very much the movie you’d expect. It has plenty of wooden performances by people arguing about men and God with stuffy British accents. The opulent Roman Empire is recreated through pricy sets and cheap-looking CGI. The tale takes a dip into revenge drama with stop-offs at Jesus lessons (plus a long passage where a dreadlocked Morgan Freeman trains Ben-Hur to be a hero, because that worked for Batman and Robin Hood). Director Bekmambetov is clearly as bored by the stately drama, religious preaching and soap opera theatrics of the early sequences of the story as most viewers. He can barely hide his contempt for the material, spending more time carefully arranging his frames than attempting to turn the story into something mildly human. Then, when the movie turns into a revenge thriller, the director finds his footing.
While the guy has never been a particularly nuanced storyteller, he certainly has a way with action. When the set-pieces hit, they deliver summertime thrills with gusto. An attack on Ben-Hur’s slave ship carries a feverish intensity and the p.o.v.-heavy chariot chase is a pretty damn impressive use of all the contemporary tools of cinematic spectacle. When reduced down to a period revenge movie, this new ‘Ben-Hur’ can be rather bracing and thrilling with tiny touches of camp. For that period of screen time, it’s easy to forget the mess that came before and enjoy the rush of grisly entertainment right up to a bittersweet coda. Unfortunately, after that, the movie gets Jesusy again, because that’s what this story is all about, and once again Berkmambetov loses interest and lets things get deathly dull.
It was an odd choice to reframe ‘Ben-Hur’ as an action movie and call it a modern blockbuster. I suppose, in an era where Hollywood seems only to be interested in branded entertainment, that makes some sense. Strip the movie down to the 40 or so minutes that its director was actually interested in and this thing can be kind of fun. Sadly, the other 90 minutes are as dull and dated as you may have feared, reminding everyone yet again that this source material was never exactly a work of genius. It was just the only epic action tale ripe for cinematic adaptation that happened to feature Jesus yet wasn’t ‘The Holy Bible’. Whether or not those 40 minutes are worth your full ticket price is a reasonable question that you’ll have to determine the answer to yourself. That stuff is fun, but most of the pleasure I felt leaving the theater came from the fact that I knew I wouldn’t have to deal with another ‘Ben-Hur’ adaptation for at least a decade.