In a large room somewhere in a major Hollywood studio they try and come up with ideas to what will be their next movie. Ideas are thrown around, there is the story about the clown that everyone is afraid of, or maybe the one where two lovers find their way back to each other against all odds. It seems over the last few years more and more they come back the same stories, the ones that have been told already. Among those retellings is “Ben-Hur”, a story that has been told often, most famously with Charlton Heston. Based on a story written in 1880 by General Lew Wallace, “Ben-Hur” feels like one that can be re-told, while being updated to bring it more to life, well at least that sounds like a good idea.
If you don’t know the story, we are introduced to Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) who is a Jewish Prince with a pretty good life. His family is kind and has taken in a Roman orphan named Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell), who Judah has taken to like a brother. While the family treats Messala like their own, his beliefs do differ from the family and can cause a little friction. Knowing he will never be their equal, Messala makes the decision to make his own path, so that he can come back as one. He joins the Roman army and finds fortune and fame fighting for Cesar. He returns to Jerusalem a hero, and while everything seems rosy, things are not the same. When an attempted assassination of Pontius Pilate fails, Ben-Hur’s family is accused of it and they are punished for it. The year’s pass and when Hur returns he comes into the only way he can get the revenge he seeks. He must defeat Messala in the circus to restore his honor.
The original film was epic in every way when it was released in 1959. With a run time of over three hours and Charlton Heston staring it, everything about it was big. Think of this version with a little less cream in the middle of the cookie, since we only have a two-hour run time. Gone is a lot of the filler, as he filmmakers kept the action intact. Written by Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley off of the above mentioned book, this version feels far from epic. With Director Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch) the filmmakers focus more on the action, while only throwing in the key moments to slow the story down. What the film truly lacks though is the magnetism of someone like Heston, who felt bigger than the story being told. The highlight of the movie comes down to the famous chariot race, with Bekmambetov taking the Nascar approach and putting us right in the middle of the action. That action though can’t save a film that feels like such a cliff notes version of the original film. With a already lackluster attempt, it tries to find its soul with a ending that just doesn’t seem like it fits with this telling. With so many versions of this story out there, there is no reason to settle for this one. Instead take a day and revisit the classic and a time when they knew how to tell a story like this.