There’s a moment at the very end of Ben-Hur that almost wrecks everything that came before; as two characters ride horses, spurring them on, galloping into a warm desert sun, a neo-soul singer named Andra Day is suddenly crooning in the background. It’s jarringly anachronistic, side-splittingly funny, and absolutely awful, the kind of last-second studio-executive decision that will ensure the last minutes of Timur Bekmambetov’s already risky remake of the 1959, Oscar-dominating classic will be accompanied by peals of incredulous laughter at each and every screening.
Choices like that soundtrack addition would seem to belie any claims that this Ben-Hur was greenlit for any reason other than to run a cinematic classic through the grubby Hollywood-blockbuster grinder, turning out something that could capitalize on the brand name, show off some pricey special effects, and easily sell audience members on an inferior update of a film universally regarded as one of the best. And there are other moments throughout the film, from its sometimes chintzy 3D presentation to a faith-based closing scene that feels oddly like an afterthought for all the dramatic weight it’s meant to carry, that suggest that same overriding goal.
And yet, Ben-Hur surprises in some ways that other summer titles guilty of comparable crimes (Jason Bourne, Independence Day: Resurgence, and to a lesser degree Ghostbusters come to mind) do not. After a sluggish yet handsomely mounted opening 45 minutes in which the taut relations between Jews and Romans in the Roman-occupied city of Jerusalem take center stage, this swords-and-sandals epic shows real teeth.
Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston, perfectly solid in a role that will forever belong to another actor) finds his freedom and influence seized when he shelters a young zealot (Moises Arias) whose anger at the Romans leads him to mount an assassination attempt on a passing Roman governor. This attempt, though unsuccessful, leads Judah’s adoptive brother Messala (Toby Kebbell, suitably sneering yet painfully human), an officer in the Roman army, to betray him, accusing the prince of treason and sentencing him to years of slavery in the heaving belly of a Roman slave ship.
That’s where Ben-Hur gets a shot in the arm, smash-cutting forward five years to find a bearded Judah escaping from his prison amid a fierce naval battle. The fight-and-flight sequence, awash in fierce CGI, kinetic camerawork, and surprisingly ghastly imagination (in one almost George Miller-esque beat, a man bangs a drum to measure the slaves’ oar strokes and continues even as his arm catches on fire), is one of two cinematic high points in the whole pic – the other, of course, being the climactic chariot sequence, shot like a NASCAR race yet still steeped in an appropriately primordial sense of iron and blood. It’s the point at which Ben-Hur, for a time, throws off the suffocating mantle of its namesake and becomes a more lively, engaging piece of work with its own distinct, rough-hewn approach to the material.
Of course, tradition trumps reinvention quickly enough. Ben-Hur makes his way out of bondage and into the orbit of a sheik named Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), who has a keen interest in chariot racing and believes the only way for Judah to properly take revenge on his brother is to beat (and potentially kill) him in one of the Romans’ violent, visceral competitions.
The entire character of Ilderim feels like a bit of a miscalculation, an impossibly wise and all-knowing mentor to Judah who makes his entryway into the chariot races smooth and uncomplicated without having a stake in the plot himself that feels organic. He’s often an unnecessary stand-in for the audience, and with his flowing red robes and cascading dreadlocks, he’s a visual distraction as well as a narrative one.
Nevertheless, at a somewhat palatable 124 minutes, this epic is relatively trim. It chugs along nicely through most of its second act, bringing Judah and Messala closer to their horse-and-carriage death-match without rushing Messala’s acceptance of his enemy’s survival or Judah’s ultimate discovery of just how devastating Messala’s betrayal has proven for his family. And Huston and Kebbell share mighty-enough chemistry to sell even cheesier dialogue that briefly flirts with Gladiator grandiosity and even Batman Begins-esque grit and gravity. Their central tension is just as palpable as the flecks of dirt flying up into the audience’s faces during that aforementioned chariot race.
Ultimately, despite their efforts and Bekmambetov’s thoroughly intense approach behind the camera, this Ben-Hur lacks the dramatic and symbolic weight of the original. That’s a fact more owed to the times (CGI is far less impressive today than at the time of the first Ben-Hur, and this is a story we’ve seen done better before) than to this remake’s quality, but it becomes hard to shake in the final stretch of the picture, wherein the filmmakers take a hard right into faith-based territory by staging Judah’s embrace of forgiveness over anger beneath the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro, who certainly gives the role his all).
Nothing quite resonates as strongly as it should, which would be a problem for Ben-Hur if we hadn’t all known it would never surpass the lofty heights of the original to begin with. How could the filmmakers, in all honesty, have topped a film that was a landmark for what it represents to the progress of the cinema yet still approached it as a remake? As it stands, this Ben-Hur is a handsome and accomplished update, one with visual aplomb and committed performances that overcome a plot both familiar and sometimes frustrating. If only it could dispense with emptier, added histrionics and a slavic devotion to fulfilling its studio mandate, both in terms of its closing pop song and cooler-than-thou dialogue (“Love your enemy? That’s progressive,” Judah snarks to Jesus at one point) that belongs in a movie set several centuries later.
It can't always escape the shadow of its namesake, but when this Ben-Hur comes into its own, it does so with a thrilling fire-and-brimstone ferocity.