At least the mismatched creative team behind 2016’s Ben-Hur knows how to release its pent-up energy. Director and Roger Corman graduate Timur Bekmambetov would appear a strange, even unseemly, choice to direct the latest big screen adaptation of Lew Wallace’s epic novel, most notably adapted for film in 1959 by William Wyler, and after the fact, that supposition rings true. Even with a run time chopped down to an even two hours, only a small fraction fully exploits Bekmambetov’s talents. He’s a pulpy action director whose greatest achievement to date is 2008’s exercise in excess Wanted, and he gives the producers maybe all they really wanted or needed, one hell of a chariot race to splay across a trailer for opening weekend. The rest of the time he’s fighting against filler, and when the opportunity for mayhem does arise, he makes sure he squishes some people to death.
The filler of Ben-Hur concerns the rivalry between Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), and his (in this version) adopted brother, Messala (Tobey Kebbell), who absconds for the Roman legion and returns to Jerusalem years later an officer intent on exploiting his kinship with Judah for political gain. When a Jewish zealot Judah had been harboring tries to assassinate new Roman governor Pontius Pilate from Judah’s own balcony, Judah and his family take the blame. Judah goes to be a galley slave and circumstances set him on a course for vengeance that leads to a fateful chariot race with his old chum.
With all of his interest absorbed in crackling action scenes, the two most prominent of which do impress – the chariot race and a hellish below-decks view of a naval battle- Bekmambetov rattles through the grand flourishes of a streamlined script to get to the goods. One minute Judah and Messala are all back slaps and grins, the next they’re scowls and grave warnings. We likewise whistle through tacked-on interludes of a cliched impossibly handsome Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro) reciting his most famed teachings, and quite possibly one that came from Chicken Soup for the Soul but the movie still tries to attribute to him anyway. Smaller dialogue scenes are already getting the shaft in favor of spectacle, but the inclusion of random teachable moments into a story already brimming with obvious lessons on ambition, revenge, greed, and forgiveness adds a whole new level of mystery to the proceedings. The bald faced sincerity sits unsteadily with Bekmambetov’s oeuvre. Is he toeing a line, or is he trying to have his cake and eat it, too, between these and scenes of achingly toned down PG-13 mayhem? Really, are we to take the director of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter at his word when it comes to his depiction of Jesus? Surely there’s a more interesting answer stewing in his head.
Alas, the script mainly plows through the details of its characters’ lives, treating the parts that don’t involve horse racing, which are all setup and generic action on their own, like excess baggage of mild import. Its epic scope gets lost in shrink-wrapped bindings, wherein Judah and Messala are basically puppets of bigger enterprises. Messala credits Pilou Æsbeck’s mouth-breathing Pontius Pilate for his good fortune, and Judah’s mentor Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman) reshapes him into a score-settling charioteer. Æsbeck and Freeman both get to utter the world-weary lessons screenwriters Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley don’t trust the audience to arrive at, in counterpoint to the moralistic ones dropped by Santoro.
The adult sensibilities of someone like Ridley Scott are missing everywhere it matters. No sense of dramatic irony, or shrewder intellectual insight into the political climate and Judah and Messala’s relationship. If they really wanted this Ben-Hur to be a lean, mean, fighting machine, they could’ve dispensed with shallow philosophizing altogether and made up some extra sea battles, fisticuffs, and skirmishes between Jewish zealots and Roman soldiers. Instead, it hangs a whole lot of loosely sewn fluff onto two impressive action sequences whose emotional weight is conveyed as easily in clips on YouTube as they are in the context of the entire movie.