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Bekmambetov's 'Ben-Hur' plays all the hits but can't answer the big questions

Posted August 24

“BEN-HUR” — 2 1/2 stars — Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman, Nazanin Boniadi, Rodrigo Santoro, Pilou Asbaek; PG-13 (sequences of violence and disturbing images); in general release

In a lot of ways, director Timur Bekmambetov’s “Ben-Hur” feels like a “Ben-Hur’s Greatest Hits,” hitting the memorable moments from the 1959 epic, and spicing things up with some 21st century special effects.

The core is unchanged. Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a wealthy Jew living in occupied Jerusalem at the time of Christ. His adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) is a Roman who leaves home to fulfill his destiny as a soldier. The story twists and pivots around their relationship, as Messala eventually betrays Ben-Hur to the Romans, setting his pacifist kin on a path of vengeance.

The movie hits all the familiar markers, filling the gaps with a lot of voiceover exposition. Ben-Hur is locked in the galley of a Roman ship, and we get a dramatic point of view of a sea battle. When he survives, Ben-Hur is taken in by the wealthy Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), and winds up driving his chariot. There are complications with his mother Naomi (Ayelet Zurer), his wife Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), and his sister Tirzah (Sofia Black-D’Elia). And of course, it all leads to a dramatic chariot race against his old friend.

All these scenes are juxtaposed against the context of Christ’s ministry, and many people will be relieved to know that Ben-Hur’s encounters with Jesus Christ (here played by Rodrigo Santoro) remain present. But often they feel disjointed, almost arbitrary, and rather than flow together like a sweeping epic, Bekmambetov’s “Ben-Hur” feels like it’s covering bases without tying the story together.

Because of this disjointed quality, it’s difficult for the cast to really distinguish themselves. Huston works hard, but fails to emerge from Charleton Heston’s over-the-top shadow. Freeman’s presence adds the nobility of his voice, but when it’s used for lines like, “good move, Ben-Hur, good move!” it feels like a miscalculation.

Similarly, the chariot race and the battle at sea are solid action scenes, but nothing to justify the larger effort, and certainly not worth a 3-D premium.

When you add up all these parts, “Ben-Hur” fails to answer the question everyone will take to the theater: Why? What is the purpose of re-making a film that won eleven Oscars? What is the merit in turning an iconic four-hour Bible epic into a two-hour drama with updated special effects?

It’s the same question you can ask of numerous re-boots, sequels and re-makes, but “Ben-Hur” feels like a particularly bold attempt to play with film history fire. It may just be that producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey want to put out a version of a celebrated Christian story that a contemporary audience might be more willing to sit through. The few obvious changes they make—including a cringe-inducing ending—seem to hurt the cause more than help it.

It’s important to note that Heston’s version wasn’t the first attempt to bring “Ben-Hur” to the screen. But for better or for worse, it’s the version any subsequent attempt will be judged by. When you remake a best picture, you’re a cover band at best.

“Ben-Hur” is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images; running time: 124 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.

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