Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Stars: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell
2 (out of 5) Globes
At least it’s (relatively) short? The not-quite-pointless new “Ben-Hur” heroically clocks in at nearly half the length of the 1959 “Ben-Hur,” a monster that eats up almost a sixth of a day. It’s such a long drag, that unstoppable classic, that about 20 minutes of it are genuinely thrilling, as if by accident, much the way even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Lipo the bloat and Lew Wallace’s source could become good, lean trash. One might be expecting trash, too, given that the producers thought the best person to make a newfangled take was the maniac who made “Wanted.”
And yet Timur Bekmambetov’s “Ben-Hur” still manages to plod, springing to life at the same two times the ’59 Oscar-gobbler did. The Russian director gives us another nifty sea battle, this one shot entirely within the bowels of a slave ship, where fallen hero Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) has been consigned to a purgatory of endless rowing. The big centerpiece — that super-duper-mega-chariot race — is only disappointing in the sense it’s almost the same as the famous one. (Adding GoPro insert shots doesn’t constitute an improvement.) It’s still impressive that, even in our fix-it-with-digital age, the new version still boasts real dudes at the reins of four real horses, speeding like podracers around a dusty track, poor souls flying off their wooden chariots and/or being stampeded by excitable equines.
The rest finds Bekmambetov playing too nice, though he is fleet. William Wyler’s ’59 stab burned half of its length on shots showing off the vistas, the sets, the (admittedly still astonishing) hundreds of extras corralled into even the most mundane scenes. Written by Keith Clarke and “12 Years a Slave” scribe John Ridley, this “Ben-Hur” cuts the story to the bone, wasting little time showing how Huston’s Judah went from a Jerusalem dandy to a galley ship slave to a speed racer. An obliviously wealthy Jewish nobleman, our hero so lives in a bubble that he’s stunned when his childhood friend, the Roman Messala (Toby Kebbell), betrays him and his family, putting Judah on the course to become a ripped, chariot-driving avenger.
You might be stunned, too. Despite going back to the Wallace source, this “Ben-Hur” has the same conceptual problem as the Charlton Heston version: Messala makes no sense. For that film, script doctor Gore Vidal slipped in some homoerotic subtext, wink-winkingly suggesting that Massala destroyed Judah because he had spurned his advances. Clarke and Ridley leave that out but never fill the narrative gap. And so Massala turns on the family that raised him, far as we can tell, because otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie.
There still isn’t. Bekmambetov seems bored trying to shoot clean, classical shots. He tries to spice up this stodgy Biblical epic; sometimes he knocks away the tripod to add some handheld grit. But he’s still stuck with a movie where actors stand around on-sets, barking exposition and stiff declamations. Eventually Morgan Freeman swings by to do little but look and sound like Morgan Freeman, like a famous star at the opening of a new McDonald’s. The actors do care, particularly Huston, who doesn’t try to be Heston, playing a flawed character, not a square-jawed icon. And there’s a noble sincerity to Clarke and Ridley’s script, which both streamlines the story and turns it into a movie about forgiveness, not vengeance, softening the blow of what could be a leftfield TBN-style capper about Jesus. (Unlike in Wyler’s film, we see the son of God, and of course he’s hot.) There’s passion bubbling under this — but it’s still a story that only comes alive when it’s getting Xtreme.