“Are we having fun now, brother?” Messala (Toby Kebbell) hoots midway through “Ben-Hur,” the fourth big screen adaptation of Lew Wallace’s novel, “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.” It’s a good question. If your tastes run toward “300” with a hint of “Clash of the Titans” or biblical stories laden with action, then the new Timur Bekmambetov directed epic may be just what the gladiator ordered.
A reimagination of Wallace’s book rather than a remake of the classic Charlton Heston film the story sees “Boardwalk Empire’s” Jack Huston in the title role. Judah Ben-Hur is a Jewish prince living in Roman-occupied Jerusalem during the time of Jesus Christ. His adopted brother Messala is an officer in the Roman army. “My family was one of the most respected in Jerusalem,” says Ben-Hur, “until we were betrayed by my own brother.” Divested of his title and separated from his family, he is exiled into a life of slavery in the galley of a Roman ship. Five years into his imprisonment he is freed after a massive shipwreck. Returning to his homeland with vengeance on his mind—“My family deserves justice for what happened to them!”—he challenges Messala to a life-and-death chariot race. “If your brother is the pride of Rome,” says Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), you beat him and you defeat an empire. Then you will have your vengeance.” In the end vengeance takes a backseat to forgiveness as Ben-Hur encounters Christ and adopts his teachings.
The new “Ben-Hur” may be all about forgiveness, but it’s hard to forgive some of Bekmambetov’s filmmaking choices. The frenetic editing is meant to convey a sense of urgency but instead of creating drama the fast cuts only emphasize what an empty exercise this is. The most famous version of the story, 1959’s epic, may be a bit of a slog these days at over three hours, but at least that version allowed us time to get to know and understand the character’s motivations. The latest retelling ignores niceties like allowing the story to unfold gradually, creating creative tension and the old chestnut, showing not telling, opting instead to bombard the screen with random 3-D images that, when strung together, form some semblance of a story.
But what should we expect from the filmmaker behind “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”? He handles the action sequences with a sure hand, imagining the shipwreck from the claustrophobic ship’s lower deck. It’s wet and wild and over-the-top, but at least it isn’t boring. Ditto the classic climatic chariot race. You can’t tell Ben-Hur’s story without it, and Bekmambetov throws his camera in the middle of the action. It’s a festival of CGI and action movie tropes that lacks the classic sensibility of some earlier versions, but has one or two shots that are exciting and different. It’s just too bad we don’t know more about the charioteers other than Ben and Messala. We know they’re probably not going to survive, but the stakes might have been higher if we at least knew who they were.
In this new translation of the tale Judah Ben-Hur learns to leave behind his human desires and think in divine terms. It’s a good message but there is nothing divine about it’s telling.