THE TREND towards perpetual remakes and reboots is a growing pox upon Hollywood. Okay, now that that’s out of the way, someone taking another crack at Ben-Hur isn’t the worst idea in the world. Although William Wyler’s 1959 Oscar magnet (itself a remake) certainly has its gargantuan virtues, it also features more padding than any unimpeachable classic can be expected to bear.
While this new version tightens things up, it unfortunately suffers from both a curiously passive central character and the faith-based dramatic flattening that seems to be a hallmark of producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. (Jesus, a compellingly enigmatic, barely glimpsed agent of change in other versions of the story, is a bit of a screen hog here.) The plot still has enough juice to work, but only just.
Deviating significantly from Lew Wallace’s source novel, this Ben-Hur follows a Jewish prince (Jack Huston), unjustly imprisoned and sworn to vengeance against his Roman adopted brother (Toby Kebbell). Director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) brings a kinetic zing to the early scenes—a naval battle viewed from the confines of a slave galley has a genuinely dreadful charge—but seems unsure how to handle the moments when the characters are standing around talking. Matters are not helped once Morgan Freeman shows up as a benevolent racing expert who offers Huston step-by-step advice on how to achieve his goals. While the urge to have Freeman deliver as many lines as possible is an understandable one, it ultimately results in a story about a hero who has strangely little input into his own destiny.
Still, it all comes down to the chariot race. Even if the rest of the movie has aged, Wyler’s version still ranks among the greatest action scenes in film history, largely because it consists of real people in a real coliseum doing really incredibly dangerous things. Here, it’s just the same old newfangled mishmash of blurry close-ups—did they run out of pixels before they could get a proper establishing shot?—and machete-edited jumbles of dust and hooves. Its un-thunderous lack of impact keeps this Ben-Hur from making a mark.