[Screen It]


(2016) (Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell) (PG-13)

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Drama: A Jewish prince must contend with his adopted Roman brother turning against him and sending him into a life of slavery.
It's 28 A.D. and Judah Ben-Hur (JACK HUSTON) is a Jewish prince living in Rome-occupied Jerusalem with his family, including his wife, Esther (NAZANIN BONIADI), mother, Naomi (AYELET ZURER), and sister, Tizrah (SOFIA BLACK-D'ELIA). No longer living there is Judah's adopted Roman brother, Messala Severus (TOBY KEBBELL), who left to make a name for himself in the Roman army, and he's done that under the watch of none other than Judean governor Pontius Pilate (PILOU ASBĘK).

Judah has no problem with the Romans, but Pilate and others are concerned about Jewish rebels, although their main focus is on a carpenter, Jesus (RODRIGO SANTORO), even if he preaches peace over violence. When Messala returns home in advance of Pilate making his way through Jerusalem, he asks for his brother's help in preventing any rebel action. Despite that, a young rebel who Judah took in attempts to kill Pilate, resulting in Messala having no choice but to arrest his adoptive family. With Naomi and Tizrah sent off to be crucified, Judah is shipped off to be a galley slave on Roman warships.

After years of that, Judah is accidentally freed during a sea battle and after spending some time adrift on the related wreckage, he washes up on the shore near an encampment run by Sheik Ilderim (MORGAN FREEMAN). While not fond of the Romans, he's found a way to make a living from them involving their love of chariot races, and he trains both drivers and horses for such endeavors. When Judah heals one of his sick horses, Ilderim decides that rather than turn the escaped slave back over to the Romans, he'll help train him to become a chariot race driver and thus get his revenge on Messala in that fashion.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Full disclosure: I've never read Lew Wallace's 1880 novel "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" nor have I seen the 1925 silent film, the 2003 animated version or the stage adaptation based on that. Obviously, I have seen the multi-Oscar winning 1959 film "Ben-Hur," but it's been decades since I sat through the entirety of its solemn 212-minute runtime. What I do recall is the climatic, nine-minute chariot race sequence (that reportedly took five weeks to shoot at the then cost of $1 million) and, of course, the towering, larger-than-life persona of Charlton Heston playing the title character.

Hearing that the film was going to be remade, I wondered who would be cast in the lead that could possibly match Heston's presence. While there were rumors about who that would be, director Timur Bekmambetov ("Wanted," "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter") and producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey opted to go with Jack Huston (grandson of Hollywood legend John Huston and probably best known for appearing in TV's "Boardwalk Empire" and playing Mr. Wickham in "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies").

While Heston only stood three inches taller than Huston's 6-foot stature, the difference otherwise appears quite staggering to the younger actor's detriment in playing the title role, as well as to the film in general. Considering the track record of the star and director, at least I can say there are no vampires or zombies introduced into this technically updated adaptation penned by Keith Clarke and John Ridley. The latter wrote and won an Oscar for his script for "12 Years a Slave," so he's obviously familiar with portraying all of the ugliness and horrors associated with characters who are forced into the indignity and physical hardship of servitude.

Yet, the degree of gravitas found in that 2013 movie is sorely missing here as we follow the tale of a Jewish prince (Huston) forced into slavery by his adopted Roman brother (Toby Kebbell), only to eventually have a high octane, face-off chariot race with him to end the flick. And I say high-octane because that's what Bekmambetov seems to be going for in certain scenes set in the film, be that the race or a battle at sea as viewed from the perspective of a galley slave down in the bowels of a Roman warship during a sea battle.

With lots of camera movement and rapid-fire editing, the director obviously hopes to appeal to modern audiences who, the thought would seem to be, wouldn't sit for the long-shots of William Wyler's epic. Accordingly, the big chariot race features shots that seemingly only last a few seconds, often in moderate to extreme close-up at times, but that robs the sequence of the enormity of the moment, the space in which it plays out, and the overall spectacle and battle between the two men.

It also doesn't help that Morgan Freeman -- or specifically his now universally recognized voice -- appears as the sheik who teaches Judah how to race chariots (and yes, that involves various related montages). When he and his God-like voice appear after the title character accidentally escapes his half-decade of slavery, people at our screening actually laughed aloud. Not at the actor, mind you, but the sound of his voice that now serves as something of a distraction ("That sounds like God speaking") in a religion-related film such as this.

Speaking of that, the film more prominently features Jesus (played by Rodrigo Santoro) than in the '59 offering, but the character -- while pivotal to the thematic and historical elements at play -- pretty much ends up shortchanged. He does convert -- off-screen -- Judah's wife, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) over to Christianity (or at least some of its tenets), protects a man from a stoning and gives water to Judah once he's enslaved and marched down the streets with a cross beam over his shoulders. But he's otherwise pretty much relegated to a quickly played out procession to Calvary and subsequent crucifixion. I don't know if longer or other footage was edited out, but that whole element feels rushed and truncated.

I'm not saying I necessarily wanted an even longer version of the film (it already clocks in just above two hours), but this sort of tale is grand in scale, scope, and theme, and much of the pic feels like a CliffsNotes version. That and the miscasting of Huston (in my view) in the lead role makes the film feel minor, especially in comparison to its wildly popular predecessor from so long ago. I'd say if you're a fan of the tale, go back to that film or maybe even the book as this new version of "Ben-Hur," while not the train wreck some are stating, isn't good enough to earn a recommendation. It rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed August 16, 2016 / Posted August 19, 2016

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