Toby Kebbell and Jack Huston in Ben-Hur (Photo: Paramount)
★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Timur Bekmambetov
STARS Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell
Back in 1959, when William Wyler’s mammoth production of Ben-Hur debuted, it was comedian Mort Sahl who quipped his review of the film: “Loved him, hated Hur.” Sahl was clearly in the minority — the movie proved to be a box office blockbuster and nabbed a record-setting 11 Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Actor for Charlton Heston) — but if the 89-year-old comic cares to repeat his crack for the 2016 version of Ben-Hur, he will likely find he has more company this time around. This new adaptation of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is by no means a terrible picture, but it’s a terribly mismanaged one, operating in fits and starts under the auspices of director Timur Bekmambetov.
Bekmambetov’s last stateside assignment was Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and perhaps adding some bloodsucking vampires to wreak havoc alongside the bloodsucking Romans might have been the way to go. As it stands, there’s not much here that’s particularly noteworthy, with the best scenes crammed into the first stretch that illustrates how two mutually adoring brothers, the Jewish Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and the (adopted) Roman Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell), are eventually transformed into sworn enemies. Along the way, Messala becomes a favorite officer of Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk) while Judah has several run-ins with a soft-spoken carpenter named Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro).
Huston and Kebbell are acceptable in the central roles, and their performances might have carried even more weight had this project debuted on the small screen, where it would have been accorded a more comfortable fit. Morgan Freeman appears as Sheik Ilderim (the role for which Hugh Griffith won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in the ’59 version), and having this secondary character also narrate the picture seems like an odd decision until you remember that Freeman once played God and who else but God should narrate such a Biblical undertaking? As for the Son of God, Santoro’s shuffling, mumbling work as Jesus makes us long for the days when Hollywood epics were only allowed to show Christ from behind and sans dialogue. Still, dramatizations of His crucifixion never fail to stir the soul, and the one featured in this film is no exception.
Other set-pieces don’t fare as well. In fact, what’s most shocking about Ben-Hur is how thoroughly it bungles the two most iconic and riveting sequences from ’59: Judah’s torturous stint as a galley slave aboard a Roman ship and, of course, the chariot race between Judah and Messala. The chariot race is hampered by having the other participants sneer like cut-rate villains in an Andrew Garfield-era Spider-Man yarn (“Enjoy this lap, because I will keeeel you in the next one!” bellows a bald baddie at Judah, forgetting to add a maniacal “Muahahaha” at the end), but in the case of both lengthy sequences, the decision to film in extreme close-up was ill-advised, and these murky and incoherent bits are further crippled by obvious CGI (one galley shot hints that Bekmambetov wanted to make Hardcore Hur) as well as rapid-fire editing that recalls those Ginsu blades in action on late-night infomercials. Because of this, viewers with stomachs sensitive to roller coaster sensations might want to skip the movie altogether — indeed, I can easily imagine Sahl walking out during either of these segments while muttering, “This Ben-Hur makes me want to Ben-hurl.”