“Ben-Hur” and Charlton Heston go together like sword and sandal, the two being inextricably linked in the public mind.
But the new, $100 million version of Ben-Hur owes less to the well-known 1959 big-screen epic in which Heston starred than to the 1880 Lew Wallace novel, “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” on which both are based. The result is a film that is a surprisingly non-campy, more explicitly Christian meditation on slavery and freedom, revenge and forgiveness that also happens to have that climactic chariot-race thrill ride that helped make the Heston film famous.
The slightly different approach shouldn’t be too surprising since one of the film’s co-writers is John Ridley who wrote the 2013 slavery classic “12 Years a Slave” and co-producers are Mark Burnett and wife Roma Downey, known for their many faith-based projects. But it’s not until the very end that “Ben-Hur” threatens to collapse underneath the weight of a heavy hand. Until then, it’s a mostly well-acted, straightforward, period drama free from the stylistic quirks for which director Timur Bekmambetov (“Wanted,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”) is known.
It’s the time of Jesus Christ and the place is Roman-dominated Jerusalem. Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell, “Dawn of the Planet of Apes”) and Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston, “Boardwalk Empire” and “American Hustle”) are brothers in every way but blood. Messala, a Roman, was adopted as a boy by Judah’s well-off Jewish family and the two are inseparable. Near the start of “Ben-Hur,” the two are racing their horses, foreshadowing a much more dangerous race the two will be competing in near the film’s end.
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That brotherly bond is sundered when Messala goes off to fight for Rome, returning years later with the Judean governor Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek) and an army of soldiers to show the Jews of Jerusalem who’s boss. There’s been unrest lately as many Jewish “zealots” (early Christians) are turning against Rome.
This is the beginning of the rift between Messala and Judah and it only widens when Judah refuses to turn over names of suspected zealots. After someone tries to assassinate Pilate, Judah is blamed and Messala completely turns on him, sending him into slavery.
The fuse of revenge is then lit and it will detonate on the chariot track several years later. The race – a blast of charging horses, broken wheels, and fallen riders – is a visual rush and a nice tip of the toga to that famous Heston sequence. That Bekmambetov can now stage it in 3D doesn’t really add much.
Huston and Kebbell flesh out these characters and Morgan Freeman brings a sense of wise solemnity as an African named Ilderim who becomes Yoda to Judah’s Skywalker. There are times when everyone looks a little too modern, though at least they’re more characters than caricatures like those in Ridley Scott’s 2014 biblical-era misfire, “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” On the other hand, Rodrigo Santoro (“The 33,” “300: Rise of an Empire”) as Jesus doesn’t have much to do but look alternately peaceful and pained.
Bekmambetov as well writers Ridley and Keith R. Clarke resist the temptation to camp it up. For some, this might be the film’s ultimate flaw, that it takes the material too seriously.
The new “Ben-Hur” doesn’t eclipse its predecessor and so it may lose in this cinematic chariot race. But it doesn’t crash and burn either and that in itself is something of a miracle.
☆ ☆ 1/2
Cast: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro.
Director: Timur Bekmambetov.
Running time: 124 minutes.
Rating: PG-13 (sequences of violence and disturbing images).