Review: ‘Ben-Hur’ stands in the shadow of 1959 epic
Remaking a film that won 11 Academy Awards invites inevitable comparison, but the latest adaptation of “Ben-Hur” distinguishes itself from William Wyler’s 1959 epic by retooling key character and story elements.
It’s still a big, biblical-era tale of power, loyalty and vengeance, only refocused through rose-colored lenses with an eye toward appealing to the lucrative faith-based audience.
Screenwriters Keith Clarke and Oscar winner John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”) start with the premise and characters from the original 1880 novel. Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell) are like brothers until Messala becomes a Roman officer who falsely accuses Judah of betrayal. Messala condemns Judah to slavery and jails his innocent mother and sister. After years of captivity and an unlikely escape, Judah befriends a horseman who insists he exact vengeance against Messala during the celebrated Roman chariot race.
The action of that horse race is just as thrilling and exquisitely choreographed as any present-day movie car chase. It’s as intense as Wyler’s, though more visceral. Advances in filmmaking and animal training mean the falls are more dramatic and the injuries more gruesome and vivid.
The sprawling sets of Roman amphitheaters and hillside villages are as sumptuous here as in Wyler’s film, but somehow less magnificent. In the age of the “Hunger Games” and ever-present CGI, massive scale just doesn’t have the impact it once did.
The message here, though, is a good and timely one, coming straight from Jesus: Lay down your arms and love your enemy.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images.”
Running time: 124 minutes