Feels its sole purpose of existing is that so it can contrive an updated chariot race for modern audiences, with decimated thought imparted to everything else. Ben-Hur is weaker in every production facet from the 1959 brawny “Ben-Hur” with Charlton Heston (it won 11 Oscars), and in some areas, it’s just plain feeble. It has this chintzy mini-series jump from one spot to the next feel. There are supporting actors, and raggedy haired supporting actreses, whose faces are so anonymous we forget them instantaneously. Jack Huston is the prince Judah Ben-Hur, but when I saw him the first few times, I wasn’t even sure, yikes, “Is that Ben-Hur?” I asked myself. Heston had idolatrous star power, but this version seems to want to give as Ben-Hur as an ordinary one-of-us interpretations, but I was never convinced that Huston could ever survive any galley rowing torture.
Scraps of a plot revolve around treason, with adoptive brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) framing Ben-Hur for an assassination attempt on Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek). And we get a mawkish message on forgiveness that seems crunched in there for the last ten minutes, with the death of Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro) given accelerated screen treatment with just enough of a moment to impart the all-important thematic message to Ben-Hur.
It’s all a labored and hasty Cliff Notes package. The whole movie is built around having a jacked-up chariot race as its centerpiece, which has its moments of super wide-angle camera razzmatazz and heartless casualties. Close-up shots makes it feels very gritty and nasty and in-your-face, but there’s enough wide open shots to make you realize how CGI-generated the crowd is – the people of the Coliseum have an all too synthetic, video game afterthought feel and there doesn’t seem to be much of a populace reaction after the victor is decided.
Morgan Freeman in grey dreadlocks has presence, even gritty persuasiveness, as a huckster who enlists men into gladiatorial arenas. You also feel Freeman has been brought in to save the day by offering opening titles and finale narration to tie in the gaps of what has been anemically been told. There’s no other way to say it. Huston sucks, he’s vapid and tame and can’t carry a story, and so the movie had to do whatever it could to make up for the void that’s there. Including giving us more Freeman who solely gives the movie whatever juice it has. Timur Bekmambetov (“Wanted,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”) directed, with so much emphasis on visual sludge that it’s not so much retrograde authenticity he was aiming for. No, what’s left is a worthless bargain basement epic.
125 Minutes. Rated PG-13.
DRAMA /BOMBS AWAY / TERRIBLE NO MATTER WHEN YOU SEE IT
Film Cousins: “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” (1925); “Ben-Hur” (1959); “Spartacus” (1960); “Gladiator” (2000).