'Ben-Hur': Film Review

What were they thinking?

The latest big-screen iteration of the beloved epic was directed by Timur Bekmanbetov ('Wanted') and stars Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell and Morgan Freeman.

What's the point of making a cut-rate version of Ben-Hur? Of creating a chariot race so heavily digitized and over-edited that it's the worst scene in the picture? Of casting lightweights in the leading roles? Of laying a wailing modern pop song over the end credits? Since its birth as a novel 136 years ago, Lew Wallace's grand melodrama of a Jewish prince whose life intersects with that of Jesus under Roman rule in Judea has always been a Grand Event — as a best-selling book, a stage spectacle that toured for decades and two spectacular film blockbusters, silent and sound. Misguided, diminished and dismally done in every way, this late-summer afterthought will richly earn the distinction of becoming the first Ben-Hur in any form to flop.

Production and sensibility-wise, the film feels of a piece with the numerous Biblical-themed television productions engineered by two of the present executive producers, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, and the home screen is where this under-produced and under-achieving venture would have fit far more comfortably (a two-part, three-hour miniseries was shown internationally in 2010 to reasonable success). It's possible that Trump-belt/faith-based viewers might be sufficiently roused to seek this out in theaters, but even they should get the word that staying home and watching the 1959 version, again or for the first time, would be far more gratifying than this Classics Illustrated-style version.

Although he plays the secondary role of an African-Arabic horse trainer who provides the four white steeds Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) will command in the big race, Morgan Freeman also has been prevailed upon to lend his Godly intonations to the opening narration, which adjoins teaser-trailer-type footage of chariot racing just to make sure the uninitiated know what's coming later on. Flipping back eight years to 25 A.D., we find the natives are restless, Judah's best boyhood pal, Roman officer Messala (Toby Kebbell), is pissy about not being able to be with Judah's sister and a mystique-enshrouded young carpenter informs Judah that God “has a plan for you.”

Up to a point, the ordinarily estimable screenwriters Keith Clarke (Peter Weir's The Way Back) and John Ridley (12 Years A Slave, Jimi: All Is by My Side) do a fancy dance to avoid duplicating scenes familiar from William Wyler's film, as they try to underline the political zealotry bubbling under life in Jerusalem as well as Judah's efforts to keep family and friends' relations from fraying entirely. But director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) hasn't a clue how to stage a normal dramatic scene in which emotions gradually build and nuances shade characterization. The camera and actors are all over the place, their movements arbitrary, the cutting constant and unmotivated; the filmmaking has no internal logic, which does neither the drama nor the actors any favors.

Visually, the director forwards a couple of decent ideas: When Judah is sentenced to the slow death of rowing in a galley for years, we see of the outside world only what he can glimpse through the small portals in the ship's side, and the Circus is periodically shown under construction as it's carved out of rock on the edge of the city; as soon as he can, Messala takes horses down onto the track, in anticipation for the big day.

But in a decision that feels designed to limit the budget rather than to boost the narrative, Judah never makes it to Rome in this rendition; he doesn't get to save the Roman commander after the sea battle and briefly savor the good life in the capital of the world. Instead, the straggly survivor wins the favor of Freeman's speculator by nursing an ailing horse of his back to life, leading to the film's final not-bad scene, in which the wily, dread-locked wheeler-dealer convinces Judah to drive for him and talks racing strategy.

In a cheeky show of disdain for the 212-minute 1959 version, The New Yorker, in its weekly “Goings On About Town” listings during the epic's long run at Loew's State Theater, simply printed the time the chariot race would begin so viewers could know when to pop in for the must-see sequence. No such guidance will be sought this time around, however, as just two words serve to describe Bekmambetov's race: incompetent and incoherent. Although the race runs about 10 minutes, roughly the same length as in the previous two films, so much is missing: the introduction of the other drivers and racing teams, the frantic attempts to rescue injured racers from the track, the systematic tipping of the metal fish to mark the laps. Instead, you gets lots of computer-generated gravel and dirt in your face courtesy of 3D, and the preponderance of tight shots and paucity of wide views provide a poor overall picture of the action, eliminating a sense of continuity, spatial relationships and suspense from what's supposed to be a breathtaking set-piece. Couldn't anyone on the creative team see the problem? The only fresh and original shot in the entire sequence involves a horse that ends up in the stands.

With the payoff sequence such a complete bust, all that's left to look forward to, if you can even put it that way, is how the director will present Jesus' arrest, march to Calvary and crucifixion. The answer is quite peremptorily, although it must be granted that at least here the Nazarene is given a face and a voice (Rodrigo Santoro); in the previous features, his face was coyly not shown nor his voice heard.

As was the 1959 version, the new film was based at Rome's Cinecitta Studios, with location work mostly done in Italy. Visually, it's on the grubby side, its compositions imprecise, the editing far too busy (hardly any shot in the chariot race lasts more than two or three seconds). None of the performances particularly register. As for the score, let's just say that the reputation of the late, great Miklos Rozsa, who composed the extraordinary music for the Wyler version, has just been strongly reinforced.

Distributor: Paramount
Production companies: Paramount, MGM, Sean Daniel Productions
Cast: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Morgan Freeman, Ayelet Zurer, Pilou Asbaek, Sofia Black-D'Elia, Moises Arias
Director: Timur Bekmanbetov
Screenwriters: Keith Clarke, John Ridley, based on the novel
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace
Producers: Sean Daniel, Joni Levin, Duncan Henderson
Executive producers: Mark Burnett, Roma Downey, Keith Clarke, John Ridley, Jason F. Brown
Director of photography: Oliver Wood
Production designer: Naomi Shohan
Costume designer: Varya Avdyushko
Editor: Dody Dorn
Music: Marco Beltrami
Visual effects supervisor: Jim Rygiel
Casting: John Papsidera

Rated PG-13, 124 minutes