If most people were asked whether we needed another remake of “Ben-Hur,” the answer would probably be no. But if they were asked whether we needed one directed by Timur Bekmambetov, who gave us “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” and produced such dreck as “Hardcore Henry,” the “no” would certainly be more emphatic. To be sure “Lincoln” was a hoot, a guilty pleasure par excellence, but the loony spirit that infused it is hardly what one is looking for in an adaptation of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel.
The book, of course, yielded two earlier screen versions, in 1925 and 1959, the first little seen nowadays except on TCM but the second still remembered for the climactic chariot race between Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and his boyhood friend, the Roman Messala (Stephen Boyd)—a sequence that remains exciting although the rest of the nearly four-hour epic is stodgy and rather dull. With all their flaws, however, both are greatly preferable to this bargain-basement treatment, in which the more intimate scenes are marked by risible dialogue, mediocre acting, inept staging and herky-jerky hand-held camerawork and the big action sequences are ruined by frenetic editing and a reliance on slipshod CGI effects.
Wallace’s expansive narrative has, as usual, been whittled down to the bare minimum—even more so than in the earlier pictures, since the entire segment set in Rome has simply been jettisoned, presumably to save the expense of all those marble sets. Judah (Jack Huston), the scion of a noble, and wealthy, Jewish family, grows up as the boon companion of his adopted brother, the Roman orphan Messala (Toby Kebbell), who saves his life after a terrible accident. Messala, however, is conscious of his lower station, particularly after Judah’s mother Naomi (Ayelet Zurer) indicates her disapproval of his wooing of her daughter Tirzah (Sofia Black-D’Elia). Miffed by this treatment, he sulks off to Rome to join the imperial legions and rises, in a messy montage of cramped battle shots, to a position of second-in-command to his patron, Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek).
Several years later, Messala return to Judaea as military aide to Pilate, newly appointed as procurator over the area that is rife with discontent. Initially he resumes his friendship with Judah, but when an assault is launched against the Roman governor from the parapet of his mansion by a zealot rebel (Moises Arias), he turns on the house of Hur, ordering Judah to be sent to the galleys and Naomi and Tirzah to be executed.
After five years as a rower, Judah is freed when his ship is destroyed during a battle with a Greek fleet. Rescued from the deep by Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), a wealthy Nubian training a team of white thoroughbreds to compete in the chariot races set for Pilate’s newly-constructed circus. Seeing Judah’s way with horses, Ilderim instructs him in chariot skill, arranging for him to take his revenge on Messala by defeating him on the course.
The big race follows, but despite Judah’s victory (no spoiler there), the emphasis in the end isn’t so much on the triumphalism of his achievement, but on a message of forgiveness and reconciliation. That derives from the pietistic element of the narrative, indicated by the presence of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (who made the History Channel series “The Bible” and its feature spin-off “Son of God”) among the executive producers. Judah has encountered Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) on a couple of occasions in the course of the movie—once on the Jerusalem street while walking with his romantic interest Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), who becomes a committed follower of the Nazarene, and then when the compassionate carpenter offers him a drink while he’s being hauled off to bondage. Now Judah reciprocates as Jesus is being paraded through the streets to his crucifixion, and witnesses the execution himself. That experience causes him to abandon his thirst for revenge, leading him even to seek reconciliation with the injured Messala. (The rain that follows Jesus’ death also cleanses Noami and Tirzah, who weren’t executed after all, of leprosy—a miracle that’s handled with ludicrous nonchalance simply by having the women announce, “We’re cured.”)
It’s nice that Wallace’s homiletic message is showcased to such a degree, even if it seems an obvious ploy to attract the audience that has turned out in droves for “faith-based” movies over the past few years. But the sequences focusing on Jesus, like virtually all the non-action elements in the film, are clumsily staged and poorly edited (by Dody Dorn). And while Santoro brings a certain serenity to his role, neither Huston nor Kebbell offers much in the way of charisma to theirs. In fact, the only members of the cast to take charge in their scenes are Asbaek, who strides about sneeringly as though he were the emperor rather than a mere flunky, and of course Freeman, who despite the impediment of a dreadlock hairdo, adds a touch of gravitas to a movie that’s otherwise sorely lacking in it. (He also intones, in his godlike tones, the periodic narration.) His presence seems even to have had a calming effect on cinematographer Oliver Wood, who momentarily locates an elusive tripod during some of Ilderim’s scenes and temporarily halts his camera’s nauseatingly jittery jumping.
Otherwise, however, this “Ben-Hur” offers none of the grandeur that the earlier versions, however stilted they might have been, brought to the tale. Nor does Marco Beltrami’s generic score come anywhere near to matching Miklos Rozsa’s for the 1959 film.
As for Bekmambetov, one can only hope he’ll go back to making his customary run of entertaining shlock rather than schlocking up stories that deserve better treatment.