Ben-Hur’ fails to justify remaking a classic film

Even Morgan Freeman is surprised this remake happened.

Two stars

Ben-Hur Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Nazanin Boniadi. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday citywide.

The chariot race in 1959’s Ben-Hur is justifiably one of the most famous stunts in the history of cinema, still astounding to watch nearly six decades after it was first created. Although William Wyler’s Oscar-winning film was neither the first nor the last adaptation of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, it’s by far the most well-known, often placed on lists of the best films of all time. So taking on Ben-Hur again is an enormous challenge, one that director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) isn’t able to meet. He tips his hand by teasing the iconic race at the beginning of the movie, before flashing back to the early bond between Jewish nobleman Judah Ben-Hur (Boardwalk Empire’s Jack Huston) and his adopted Roman brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) in Jerusalem in the first century A.D.

Bekmambetov and screenwriters John Ridley and Keith R. Clarke amp up the violence and focus on the revenge story, as Messala betrays Judah and sends him off to a life as a Roman galley slave. Huston is dull as Judah, and the expensive production doesn’t have the grandeur and magnificence of Wyler’s film. Both its running time (about two hours, compared to the 1959 film’s nearly four) and its overt religious message have been cut way back, leaving a truncated, plodding drama with minimal excitement and nothing worthwhile to say.

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