For those unfamiliar with “Ben-Hur” — or who only remember that it involves a chariot race and Jesus — a new scaled-down movie version might be deemed harmless. Anyone hoping to find something even remotely worthy of the 1959 epic that won 11 Oscars, on the other hand, is advised to steer clear.
Indeed, despite its period trappings and earnest biblical underpinnings, director Timur Bekmambetov and writers Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley have essentially turned “Ben-Hur” into a “Rocky” movie built around that chariot contest, coupled with an overt religious theme.
The net result is a movie that, even with moments of cinematic, computer-generated splendor, feels like a Hallmark Channel remake of a theatrical classic.
The film actually opens by teasing the climactic race (also splashed across its billboard ads), flashing back eight years to fill in what brought the combatants to the starting line.
That introduces Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), the privileged son of a wealthy Jewish family in Jerusalem; and his adopted Roman brother Messala (Tony Kebbell, who, as bad-guy roles go, also played Dr. Doom in the forgettable “Fantastic Four” reboot).
Motivated by feelings of inadequacy, Messala soon leaves to join the Roman army. He returns years later as part of a military force determined to squelch resistance to Roman rule, and promptly arrests Judah for a crime he didn’t commit. Judah is sentenced to a brutal life as a galley slave, and his mother and sister are also seized and presumed dead.
Aboard the Roman ship, Judah survives a harrowing sea battle that might be the film’s most visually accomplished sequence. Once ashore, he’s taken in by the desert-dwelling Ilderim (Morgan Freeman, doing what little he can to class up the joint), who plans to race his prize horses against Rome’s finest charioteer, Messala — thus setting up the inevitable showdown and Judah’s opportunity for revenge.
Unlike director William Wyler’s adaptation of Lew Wallace’s novel, this “Ben-Hur” dispenses with any subtlety in its depiction of Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro), who makes several key appearances as his story parallels and crosses Judah’s path.
That shouldn’t be a surprise. The producers include reality-TV kingpin Mark Burnett and his wife, actress Roma Downey, who have established a footprint in scripted drama primarily by mining biblical fare, including their History channel series “The Bible.”
At just over two hours, the new version runs much shorter than its Oscar-winning predecessor, which by itself isn’t a problem. Nor is the dearth of star power, since the producers are clearly selling the title, not the cast. (“Ben-Hur” isn’t projected to be a major box-office draw in the U.S., meaning it will require solid international returns to recoup its investment.)
Yet other than Huston and Kebbell, who won’t make anyone forget Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd but acquit themselves admirably enough under the circumstances, the streamlined narrative leaves mere scraps for supporting players. That includes Freeman and “Homeland’s” Nazanin Boniadi as Judah’s wife.
The faith-based Christian audience often complains about a shortage of popular entertainment that reflects their values, and “Ben-Hur” has clearly been designed and marketed to feed the appetite for projects with a spiritual foundation.
Beyond the merits of that concept, though, there’s precious little to celebrate creatively speaking. Instead, “Ben-Hur” highlights the difference between merely saddling up and stumbling to the finish line, versus actually winning the race.
“Ben-Hur” premieres in the U.S. on Aug. 19. It’s rated PG-13.