Here’s a fascinating bit of trivia about the 1880 novel “Ben-Hur” that you would never guess from watching Timur Bekmambetov’s pedestrian new movie version: it was subtitled “A Tale of the Christ,” and it made Judah Ben-Hur’s conversion a significant part of the story. In the movie, everything Jesus-related feels like an afterthought, like they forgot it was supposed to be a religious drama and wedged some Christianity into it at the last minute. This is a movie about Jesus the same way “Jaws” is a movie about the Fourth of July.
Which would be fine, except that what it IS about isn’t compelling, either. The central narrative, about enslaved Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) seeking revenge against his treacherous Roman best friend Messala (Toby Kebbell), is a rote recitation of plot points without energy or humanity, muddled by an odd change that writers Keith R. Clarke (“The Way Back”) and John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”) made to the story.
In the original (the book as well as the 1959 Charlton Heston movie), Judah is enslaved and his family imprisoned because a tile fell from their roof and spooked the governor’s horse — an accident, cruelly punished by Messala as a show of strength to the Jews. This time, it’s not a loose tile but an arrow intentionally fired at Pontius Pilate by a Jewish insurgent angry at the Roman occupation. Judah had previously admonished the lad and his fellow zealots to stand up to Rome peaceably, so it makes no sense for him to help him escape and then take the blame for his assassination attempt. It also deflates his motive for wanting revenge against Messala — you know, the whole CRUX OF THE STORY.
Bekmambetov, who’s made mostly vampire movies before now, handles the sea battle and the chariot race with aplomb (though the latter sequence pales in comparison with the legendary 1959 version), and Morgan Freeman is a welcome presence as Ilderim, the African who bets on Judah’s charioteering. Indeed, it’s Ilderim’s counsel that gets Judah to a place of “forgive and forget,” not the influence of peripheral Brazilian Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro).
The dialogue is all shallow, modern glibness, performed without distinction by dull actors. “Don’t they teach subtlety in Caesar’s army?” Judah’s sister (Sofia Black-D’Elia) asks the flirtatious Messala. (Why would they teach subtlety in the army?!) At the prospect of racing in the Roman circus (that’s what the arena was called), Judah is gravely informed, “In the circus, there is no law.” How seriously can you take a movie that says “In the circus, there is no law”? How seriously does such a movie even WANT to be taken? In the end, this plodding remake never gives a valid reason for its own existence.
C (2 hrs., 4 min.; )