Let's cut to the chariot chase. The latest screen version of Ben-Hur would be little more than a condensed miniseries without it, framed for small television screens, with performances to fit.
Director Timur Bekmambetov, no slouch in the action department, knows that's what this remake has going for it, that and the church crowd. Lew Wallace's 1880 novel is regarded as a Christian cultural influence, but a little crashing and smiting never hurts the box office.
Bekmambetov's Ben-Hur begins by teasing the highlights to come, lining up Jewish nobleman Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and his adopted brother Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell), a Roman candle ready to explode off the starting line. Then Morgan Freeman interrupts with off-screen narration about bitter revenge and forgiveness. Both Freeman and the chariots won't be seen until much later.
Until then, Ben-Hur settles into the brothers' rivalry, that kicks up a notch after Judah marries Messala's girlfriend Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) while he's off fighting a war. It's all very Game of Thrones, in a tame, pious sort of way. Not long after that, the happy couple get advice from a nice carpenter (Rodrigo Santoro) at a crucifixion, of all places.
It won't be the last time Judah and Jesus of Nazareth cross paths. Ben-Hur is produced by Mark Burnett, with the same accent on spiritual matters that he brought to two Bible-based miniseries. Faith-based audiences are this movie's best hope for success.
Funny, in 1959 version starring Charlton Heston, Jesus' face wasn't shown because at the time many considered it improper to do so. This movie is so theologically intent that Jesus practically has two faces; Santoro's and Huston's dead ringer.
A dissident sheltered by Judah attempts to assassinate Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek), forcing Messala to make his brother a galley slave. Before you can say row your boat, that's what Judah and dozens of other sweaty dudes are doing. For a few minutes Bekmambetov gets his movie up to ramming speed, with a sea disaster and Judah's narrow escape.
Judah's path leads to Freeman's enjoyable turn as Sheik Ilderim, a dreadlocked chariot racing enthusiast, a role that earned Hugh Griffith an Oscar in the 1959 version. Freeman appears more interested in performing than usual these days, plus the horses mean the race we've awaited isn't long off.
Judah convinces Ilderim to let him drive against Messala in a Roman circus death race before Pilate himself. Jewish slaves will be watching, hoping for a moral victory over their Roman oppressors. Ilderim is giving 6-to-1 odds. There's a lot on the line, including the movie.
When Pilate drops the starting hanky, Ben-Hur bursts to life, with wild CGI horses somersaulting and chariots crushing everything in their path, a whirl of motion and violence deserving a better showcase. I miss Messala's bladed chariot wheels from the 1959 version, that Stephen Boyd steered so evilly into opponents' wheels. But Bekmambetov does justice to that previous, practical stunt masterpiece, without the animal cruelty.
While we're comparing, let's be kind and just say Huston is no Heston. This movie isn't built on he-man virtue but sensitive suffering, which Huston is built to play. If he were acting in 1959, Huston would have a role in Ben-Hur, somewhere in the back of that flesh-and-blood cast of thousands.
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