It's a good question as to why you would remake a film that won 11 Academy Awards and was one of the highest grossing pictures of all time, but this update of Ben-Hur doesn't worry about the comparisons. It would be easy to hate this film because it doesn't match up to the standard of the Charlton Heston classic, but it would also be lazy and shortsighted. This version of Ben-Hur is a workmanlike telling of the epic, reasonably well-constructed with some nice action scenes that only stumbles with how it incorporates the Crucifixion of Jesus into its story.

Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell) are long-time friends who are torn apart by the divide between Catholics and Jews. Their story takes place over years of military conquest and awkward time jumps (first it's eight years ago, then three, then five), and essentially boils down to a big misunderstanding that intolerance only makes worse.

It's simple but effective, and the whole cast is game for the melodrama that goes on in the next two hours. Huston has a sensitivity and grit that makes him a likable protagonist while Kebbell sells Messala's struggle between family and duty well. Whenever these two are on-screen, you care about what happens to their friendship.

The 1959 version of Ben-Hur clocked in at over three hours and alluded to the Crucifixtion of Jesus, but this one is much shorter and features a lot more of Jesus as a supporting character. It shouldn't be a surprise; Mark Burnett, the producer of several Bible adaptations, was behind this remake, so a greater stab at attracting Christian audiences shouldn't be surprising. But the film mostly pulls of these scenes tastefully, and it doesn't feel like they're preaching to the faithful in like some pieces of propaganda I've seen lately (God's Not Dead 2). 

Jesus is portrayed in a quiet, gentle manner like Rodrigo Santoro; it's a performance that's metaphorically speaks softly and carries a big stick. When he enters any scene, everybody stops to note his presence, and Santoro's quiet charisma can carry softer moments with a simple movement of his hand. His Jesus is gentle and loving, and never feels like he's invading the picture to preach his message.

The revenge story drives most of the action here, leading to a big chariot race at the climax. The 1959 version of Ben-Hur had a chariot race that was seen as legendary; this one is mostly solid. It's a race that feels so familiar it could've taken place in the modern day with cars, complete with Morgan Freeman (Paying off his house here) advising the young racer on what to do from the sidelines.

The race also works because of the successful build-up between Messala and Judah; you want to see revenge, and a bloody fight amongst the chariots is a great way for the audience to watch that. Call me a dumb man that likes man shit, but I enjoyed the violent flipping of carts and people being run over by horses. That might make me easily amused.

The only real misstep here also has to do with Jesus, and how the movie does not know how to handle his crucifixion. I say that not as a religious person (I'm not), but rather as someone that's a fan of a smooth narrative. Jesus is captured and killed after the chariot race in a way that makes you feel like the director forgot that it had to be in the movie. The event takes over the last 10-15 minutes of the movie, when there wasn't enough of Jesus shown earlier to make it be emotionally impactful.

Essentially, one of the most important events in human history feels like an afterthought. This is where Burnett's association really shows, because Ben-Hur takes an odd lurch from enjoyable historical drama to preachy religious film. A quick look at the synopsis of the '59 movie showed a similar plot, but with less Jesus throughout; perhaps that might've been the smarter path to go here.

Published by Jagger Czajka