Movie Review: “Ben-Hur” loses heart

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It’s been a pretty good year for faith-based films, with “Risen” and “Miracles from Heaven” showing that Hollywood can get stories about Jesus and those who worship him right.

The latest remake of “Ben-Hur” pretty much lets down the side, though.

Russian director Timur Bekmambetov and his screenwriters make a thorough hash of the book. Not so much General Lew Wallace’s 19th century “A Tale of the Christ,” the one that tells the story of the Jewish prince who likes chariot racing, hates the Navy and meets Jesus in Jerusalem, though they chop that up, too.

I’m talking about the Bible, the Gospels, the New Testament.

In this “Ben-Hur, Dismas (Moises Arias), “the penitent thief” the Bible describes as accepting Jesus while they’re both nailed to crosses, becomes a Jewish zealot attempting to chase the Romans out, one assassination at a time. The Ben-Hurs shelter him.

Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) is practically a neighbor of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston). The timeline is so bollixed that there’s no need for a triumphal entry into the city on Palm Sunday. Jesus is there so often that Pontius Pilate points him out as a potential threat years before crucifying him.

If Mel Gibson went out of his way to remind the world of the Jewish religious hierarchy’s role in condemning Jesus and ensuring his death, the new “Ben-Hur” solely blames the Romans and leaves the Hebrews out of it. It’s got other fish to fry and hand out, with loaves, to feed the masses. It has pointed references to the House of Ben-Hur’s privileged place in Jerusalem’s “one percent.” They should wholly support Roman occupation against revolutionary zealots, Judah’s adopted “brother” Messala (Toby Kebbell) argues.

Because “When they’re done with us, they’ll turn on you.”

All that said, Bekmembetov, aptly-enough the director of the even more revisionist “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” stages a mean sea battle and a damn fine chariot race. It’s all the stations of the cross and the novel that he skips along the way that rob the film of its heart and soul.

Judah’s family took in the Roman boy Messala, grandson of a disgraced general, and the two lads grew up as brothers. Not that Messala didn’t lust after his adoptive sister (Sofia Black-D’Elia). He goes off to war, to prove himself and earn his fortune fighting barbarians in Germany and Persia.

When he returns, he’s an officer of Pilate (Pilou Asbæk) who wants Judah’s help putting down a rebellion. And if you remember the Charlton Heston/Stephen Boyd 1959 film, there’s an incident that forces Messala to send Judah into slavery and wipe out his family. Judah spends years chained to an oar in a Roman war galley.

Events conspire to free him, he winds up in the camp of an African horse trader (Morgan Freeman), and that takes him back to Jerusalem and the big showdown we all know is coming. 

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The story arc here, twisted around as it is, is closer to the mark if you’re looking for a vengeful man’s finding Jesus and redemption and freedom from hate.

But the movie skips past many moments that are supposed to be poignant to get to the famous race, and then saddles itself with a new ending that doesn’t atone for that.

Nazanin Boniadi (of TV’s “How I Met Your Mother” and “Homeland”) makes little impression as Esther, the lovely servant Judah marries and then almost loses to the new religion she has found.

Santoro, a towering Xerxes in “300,” makes for one of the handsomest Jesuses in screen history.

The Pilate here lacks cunning and gravitas, Kebbell (“Fantastic Four”) fails to make us feel Messala’s journey from love to bitterness and thenhatred. Morgan Freeman lends some weight, but not a lot of sparkle, to the proceedings.

But Huston (“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies“) holds the screen and manages the film’s lone moment of pathos well.

And I cannot say enough about the dazzling, digitally-enhanced chariot race, where Bekmanbetov poured most of his energy. We are in the chariots, chasing the chariots, under the hooves and swooping down on the Roman Circus as the race pounds away.

The galley fight — shown from Judah’s below-decks point of view, is equally impressive. He sees officers deciding his fate only through the gaps in the deck planking and the sea-spray filled fight only through the oar-ports he and his fellow condemned row through. It’s a chilling, visceral and surreal sequence where in the 1959 film it was more majestic and stately.

And that, in the end, is the undoing of this latest version of one of the most-filmed tales in screen history. This “Ben-Hur” tries to squeeze what was once a three and a half hour movie into two hours. There’s no room for the majesty and power of Rome, and no budget to show the wealth of the Ben-Hurs and monumental building spree of the Romans, no pauses to absorb the words or actions of Jesus. When he interrupts a crowd stoning a woman, we’re supposed to feel something. There’s no time for that, here.

Everyone, from director to cast, seems so rushed that there’s no time for romance, less time for leaps of faith and every moment of conversion is abrupt, dictated by the script and not by the heart.

As Charlton Heston would have told you, if you rush it, it’s not an epic. Because “Ben-Hur” is supposed to be more than just a chariot race.

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MPAA Rating:PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images

Cast: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Nazanin BoniadiMorgan Freeman, Rodrigo Santoro

Credits: Directed by Timur Bekmambetov, script by Keith R. Clarke, John Ridley, based on the Lew Wallace novel and . A Paramount release.

Running time: 2:04

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