It’s almost impressive that director Timur Bekmambetov (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) had the gumption to remake a cinematic icon. Unfortunately, that’s the extent of his daring. He opts to play it safe and more than a little toothless with the godfather of Biblical epics, rather than going for broke with a more stylized interpretation. As a result, there’s not of a point to its existence.
Bekmambetov’s stab at Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel (the fourth, following William Wyler’s 1959 epic and two largely forgotten silent film versions from 1907 and 1925) comes across as Cecil B. DeMille Lite, a Cliff’s Notes version stripped down to fit a two-hour running time in order to get to the chariot race as soon as possible. There are so few surprises that, frankly, a few vampires would have been a welcome touch.
This iteration posits Messala (Toby Kebbell) as the adopted brother of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), thus side-stepping the homoeroticism that is half the fun of the 1959 version. The grandson of a storied Roman hero, Messala feels like an outsider in this prestigious family and in Jerusalem, and leaves home to seek his fortunes the Roman army during his three-year tour of duty.
Tensions rise between the Jews and the Romans while he is away; the latter bleed the city of resources to build a coliseum, and the former respond with violence. A certain pacifistic carpenter (Rodrigo Santoro in the exact opposite of his role in 300) attempts to keep the peace by preaching a different path, while Judah attempts to keep the peace by avoiding the conflict altogether. A few contrived twists of fate see Judah sentenced to life as a galley slave on a Roman warship. He escapes five years later, re-invents himself as a charioteer with the help of Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman, the movie’s only source of depth), and challenges Messala to a grudge match on the race track.
There’s not much else to it. The screenplay by Keith Clarke and John Ridley goes a little too far in boiling down the sprawling story to its basics, leaving the viewer with with a movie that cycles from soap opera-ish family drama to action sequence to “meanwhile, here’s what Jesus doing” with clockwork predictability before concluding with a sappy, hollow, and unearned feel-good ending that sucks the wind out of the preceding 100-plus minutes.
The action sequences keep it from being a total wash, but only slightly. The chariot race is more brutal than the original, but it isn’t as gracefully shot or edited, ends way too soon, and is deflated by the presence of cartoonish antagonists who are one mustache twirl and an oil slick gag away from being Wacky Racers. On the other hand, the galley sequence borders on virtuosity. Filmed in cramped, hellish quarters from the slaves’ point of view with an eye for fearsome detail, it offers a hint of what could have been.
Sadly, the rest of the movie goes down with the ship.