Considering that the 1959 version of Ben-Hur starring Charlton Heston smashed box office records, won 11 Oscars and is widely regarded as one of the best films of all time, it would take a biblical miracle for this new remake to live up to its predecessor. The latest of several adaptations of the 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (written by Civil War general Lew Wallace), the new Ben-Hur is directed by Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov, best known for such stylized horror and dark fantasy vampire films as Night Watch, Day Watch and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It’s an odd, but intriguing, choice for this Romans vs. Jews remake.
Jack Huston, a supporting actor in Boardwalk Empire, American Hustle and others, has big sandals to fill as Judah Ben-Hur, the Jewish prince made famous by Charlton Heston. A friendly lifelong rivalry with adopted brother Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell) evolves into a bloodthirsty struggle as Severus grows up to become a Roman soldier. The tension between the Jewish royalty and the Roman oppressors in Jerusalem reaches its breaking point after an assassination attempt on Roman leaders. In an effort to save his family, Ben-Hur confesses to the crime despite his innocence.
Severus makes an example of Ben-Hur and his family, enslaving the prince and sentencing his mother Naomi (Ayelet Zurer) and sister Tirzah (Sofia Black D’Elia) to crucifixion, despite the fact that Severus and Tirzah are in love with one another. Ben-Hur spends the next five years in the abusive galley of a Roman warship. After his ship is destroyed during battle, Ben-Hur miraculously survives and is rescued by Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman) upon washing ashore. It just so happens that Ilderim trains horses and earns his wealth betting on chariot races, something that Ben-Hur knows a little bit about having grown up racing horses with Severus. With Severus now a champion charioteer, Ilderim trains Ben-Hur to compete in the upcoming chariot race.
This race in the 1959 version of Ben-Hur is lauded as one of the most exciting sequences in all of cinema. Naturally, the chariot race in the new Ben-Hur is the most action-packed part of the movie, with each racer plotting to take out the others and Ben-Hur looking for revenge against his villainous brother. It definitely has some intense moments, but it’s hard to say if it lives up to its predecessor.
An interesting subplot in this Ben-Hur is the story of Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro), who crosses paths with Ben-Hur and his loved ones on a few occasions, leaving an interesting impression each time. Jesus’ story runs concurrent to that of Ben-Hur, and their roles are reversed towards the end of the movie as it is Ben-Hur who shows compassion for Jesus during his torturous trials just as Jesus had done for him earlier in the movie. Despite the fact that these two stories are somewhat entwined, having Jesus’ struggles with Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk) culminate after the chariot race feels a little superfluous, even though it ultimately plays an important part in the closure between Ben-Hur and Severus.
Ben-Hur is unlikely to ascend to the cinematic greatness of its predecessor. It’s still an entertaining adventure with some action-packed moments of redemption. Freeman is a commanding presence that helps bring the story together pretty well while the rest of the cast holds its own in grandiose settings.