Whenever anybody talks of Ben-Hur the first thing they recall is the chariot race. In William Wyler's 1959 Oscar-winning classic, Charlton Heston flew around that wide expanse of a track, captured in breath-taking 70mm at a time when spectacle like that truly felt like a spectacle. And clearly director Timur Bekmambetov, who previously-helmed Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, remembers that chariot scene quite well because it seems to be his main point of interest. Fortunately, the lack of emotional drama isn't enough to completely sink this modern update despite it lacking the prestige of prior versions, but at least it's not 3 1/2 hours long, thank God.
Remaking Ben-Hur was always going to be a difficult proposition, even in today's climate when the most pitiful faith-based movies still find an audience. The most famous version won an astounding eleven Academy Awards, which you'd think would be a deterrent from anybody trying to redo it for any reason. That hasn't been the case by a long stretch. Bekmambetov's hiring signaled immediately this Ben-Hur wouldn't be concerned with Oscars aspirations; blockbuster entertainment geared towards the already-converted was its goal. And that audience will surely find this more palatable than they did Darren Aronofsky's supposedly left-leaning Noah, despite some contemporary changes to the material.
Beginning at the starting blocks of the big chariot race, former Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and his adoptive brother, the Roman warrior Messala (Toby Kebbell, good luck finding a blockbuster he isn't in), jaw at one another about vengeance and old grievances. They had been like actual brothers once, and the film flashes back to that innocent time. Ben-Hur comes from a wealthy family, born into privilege that he feels very comfortable in, while Messala is the grandson of a Roman traitor involved in Caesar's murder. As an orphan he was taken in and raised by Ben-Hur's family, although the mother (Ayelet Zurer) clearly plays favorites. Shamed by his given wealth and the constant shunning, Messala seeks individual power by joining the Roman legions on their global conquests. Meanwhile, Ben-Hur finds love, and begins to find a new faith in his seemingly random encounters with a certain charismatic and sexy carpenter, Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro).
This is a major change from the book but is closer to how the many adaptations have gone. Another change comes after Messala returns years later, a Roman commander who has fought and won many battles. He needs Ben-Hur's help squashing those who oppose Roman rule, but his brother offers little support. Rather than a falling roof tile it's an arrow shot at Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek as the man who crucified Jesus) which triggers Messala's betrayal of Ben-Hur and his family. Tiles are boring, but an arrow fired by an agitator (Moises Arias) staying in Ben-Hur's home is a twist that makes his downfall more ironic. The once-wealthy prince is thrown in shackles to become a slave, while his family is hauled off to be killed.
Surpassing the chariot race as the centerpiece is the galley scene, a claustrophobic jaw-dropper of hot oil, flaming arrows, and watery death. The 3D is especially good here as projectiles wizz past the rows of battered slaves, including Ben-Hur, all stripped of their humanity and beaten into submission. It's here that Ben-Hur, after years in the galley (we see like 30 seconds of it) decides it's time to go home and get some payback. But first he has to survive. The carnage Bekmambetov unleashes is impressive and horrifying, but not dissimilar to the gruesomeness of his prior work. Let's not forget he's the guy who gave us Wanted, a movie that had "violence is freedom" as the basic core message.
Whether you're familiar with the Ben-Hur story or not the characters will feel that way, thanks to a no-frills screenplay by Oscar winner John Ridley and Keith R. Clarke. They breeze quickly through philosophical discussions on faith, freedom, and family, in order to get to the next impressive action sequence. That said, some of the quiet scenes have surprising strength as Ben-Hur wrestles with his desire for peace and need for payback. You can feel the pull within him as he tries to reconcile the man Messala is now with the one he used to share such a brotherly bond with.
Huston doesn't command the screen like Heston did but he brings a sensitivity that makes him endearing and sympathetic. He's not a natural action hero, though, and that is never more apparent than during the chariot race when Kebbell really takes charge. Add to the list of strong performances by Kebbell in movies he's probably too good for, a list that includes Fantastic Four, Warcraft, Wrath of the Titans...and that's just the start. There's a welcome expansion of the female roles, giving Zurer and co-star Nazanin Boniadi the chance to bring a different kind of ferocity than their male counterparts. Santoro feels out of place as Jesus but then that whole parallel storyline, which ends with a smaller, less torturous Crucifixion than The Passion of the Christ, doesn't need to be there. Oh, and Morgan Freeman is here too, completely phoning it in as a rich African gambler (he's a sheik, but they never say it) who finds Ben-Hur, and trains him in chariot racing so he can humiliate Rome in the big arena. Freeman also voices the mostly pointless narration, because what would a Biblical remake like Ben-Hur be without the voice of God?
Rating: 3 out of 5