2016, PG-13, 125 min. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Starring Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Aug. 26, 2016
Perhaps divining that the nine-minute chariot race is all anyone remembers from MGM’s nearly four-hour-long, Charlton Heston-starring Ben-Hur adaptation of 1959, the team behind this latest attempt at Lew Wallace’s 1880 historical/religious novel just can’t hold its horses: The film opens with a tease of that centerpiece chariot contest, in which adopted brothers-turned-foes Judah Ben-Hur (Huston), a Jewish prince, and Roman soldier Messala (Kebbell) crack whips and trade taunts like Fast & Furious pedal-to-the-metalheads. In my book, that’s a smart move, as the only thing distinguishing this new adaptation is Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov’s proficiency with action set-pieces, including a thrilling mid-film sea battle that shipwrecks Ben-Hur, a galley slave after Messala had him wrongfully arrested for sedition.
But from the perspective of the armchair quarterback mulling a catastrophic first-weekend box office gross, that action-first gambit may now seem like poor strategy. The trailers overemphasized the violence of the Roman circus and hardly hinted at the film’s Christian messaging, even as this new film elevates Jesus’ role from bit player to featured performer. (Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro portrays Christ.) The Christian audience – such a sexy demographic these days – did not turn up and tithe to Ben-Hur like it did other recent studio efforts at reviving the biblical epic, Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings, quite possibly because that audience didn’t know Ben-Hur was made with them in mind. (It was produced by Christian-entertainment power couple Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.)
In any case, that’s a whole lot of talking around the movie rather than about it, because the movie itself just isn’t that interesting. It’s not the unmitigated disaster early reviews suggested. Instead, it is a blandly competent and doggedly uninspired redo of material adapted a half-dozen times already. I’d rather howl at camp, hoot at a spectacular failure than nod off at something so perfectly, awfully passable.