Here’s the truth: I had a good time watching the new Ben-Hur. Will it linger in my thoughts for decades? I don’t think so. Will Jack Huston replace Charlton Heston whenever I think of the title character? Not likely. Did we really need another version of this familiar story? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining.
Before the lights were dimmed in the theater I joked to my wife that to satisfy a 2016 audience they’d open the movie with the chariot race. The joke was on me: that’s exactly what they do. It turns out to be a savvy move, as it grabs our attention and lays the groundwork (pun intended) for the flashback that constitutes the balance of the picture.
William Wyler’s Oscar-winning movie from 1959 takes three and a half hours to lay out its sprawling saga of brothers who turn against each other during the time of Jesus in ancient Jerusalem. This modern reboot tells the same story in a brisk two hours and its energy never flags.
Jack Huston is solid, if uninspired, as the Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur, and Toby Kebbell is convincing as his adopted Roman brother, who has a permanent chip on his shoulder. The script (credited to Keith Clarke and producer John Ridley, who gave us 12 Years a Slave) follows a steady path as the prince is brought low and forced into slavery on a galley ship. Condemned to a certain death, he outwits fate and rises again to face his brother in a chariot race in the Roman Colosseum.
Judah’s savior, after a shipwreck washes him ashore, is a wily African who races camels. Bedecked in dreadlocks, Morgan Freeman is so effortlessly entertaining to watch that he breathes new life into the film’s final portion. The only problem is that you can’t forget you’re watching Morgan Freeman.
With a lot to live up to, director Timur Bekmambetov delivers the goods in the chariot race. It is breathlessly exciting to watch, and more graphically violent than the 1959 version. I’m told that the filmmakers used CGI sparingly but nowadays there is no way of telling what’s genuine and what isn’t.
I’ve never been a huge fan of that movie but it has left an imprint on me and millions of other people over the years. Whatever its flaws, it is indelible. Somehow, knowing that the chariot race is real gives it weight, just as Heston’s sober presence and sculpted body define him as Ben-Hur.
The creators of this remake manage to humanize the characters for a contemporary audience, which may have some short-term rewards. Young people who chance to see this film may find it entirely satisfying. But for those of us who can’t erase the memory of its predecessor (not to mention the heralded silent MGM production) it can only be of passing interest. At least it is well-acted and crafted with skill.