The good news is that the story of Ben-Hur is so rock solid that not even the director of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” can screw it up completely. The sixth feature-length film or miniseries to be adapted from Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel, “Ben-Hur: A Tale of The Christ,” Timur Bekmambetov’s take on the religious epic inevitably lacks the grandeur of Fred Niblo’s 1925 silent or the girth of William Wyler’s 1959 Oscar-hoarding classic. After all, this is 2016 (more specifically, the summer of 2016), a time when movies about Jesus are pitched only to the converted, and blockbusters can only be longer than 120 minutes if they end with two iconic superheroes fighting each other to a stalemate.
But if this new “Ben-Hur” was only provided with a fraction of the potential that’s been afforded to its predecessors, it sometimes finds the strength to reach out and scrape against its frustratingly low ceiling. It may be a pale shadow of the previous films that have been adapted from the same story, but it follows in their grand tradition of using this saga about the bedrock of Western civilization as a spectacle to flaunt how far we’ve come. And, in some cases, how far we’ve fallen.
Though Bekmambetov’s version — co-written by Keith Clarke and “12 Years a Slave” scribe John Ridley — rather evenly combines details from Wallace’s novel with those that were introduced by the movies adapted from it, this is still pretty much the same story that you know and begrudgingly tolerate whenever you’re visiting your parents and it’s on Turner Classic Movies. Not so arbitrarily set in the years between 25 and 33 A.D., this “Ben-Hur” begins with a blitz, foregoing the tale’s biblical prologue in favor of driving right into the arena. Two generically handsome white dudes square off at the starting block of a deadly chariot race, each intent to kill the other. Once, they were like brothers, but the events of recent years have curdled the love between them into a fierce rivalry that can only be settled with blood. Eventually, this will all come together as a Tale of the Christ, but before it can do that it has to be a Soap Opera of the Chiseled.
Resetting the clock to a more innocent time, the film shifts to Jerusalem and reintroduces its fraternal beefcakes as a wealthy Jewish prince named Judah Ben-Hur (“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” star Jack Huston) and his adopted brother Messala (the unsinkable Toby Kebbell, whose previous credits include “Fantastic Four,” “Warcraft” and “The Counselor”). These are skin-deep characters, and their natures appear to be forged solely by circumstance.
Ben-Hur grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth at a time when a silver spoon was enough to buy an entire house, and he wears his wealth with the lightness of someone who has always taken it for granted. Messala, the grandson of a Roman who betrayed Caesar, is an orphan who’s lucky just to be alive. He resents the things that are given to him, and joins the strengthening Roman army in order that he might fight for the sense of entitlement that comes naturally to his sibling. Messala is driven by power, whereas Ben-Hur has the luxury to favor love, and his natural inclination is kindled by a handful of chance encounters with a hardbodied and heavily accented local carpenter (Rodrigo Santoro as Sexy Jesus).
Bekmambetov can hardly hide his disinterest in deepening the drama between his characters — he hitched his wagon to this heavy chariot just so that he could shoot the climactic horserace and the handful of savage set pieces that come before it, and he directs the domestic squabbles between his male leads (and the women they love) with all the nuance and feeling you might expect from the producer of “Hardcore Henry.” The hurried, shapeless scenes in which Ben-Hur and Messala begin to grow apart are carried by nothing more than the strength of Kebbell’s increasingly furrowed brow, and these characters are quickly reduced to the competing philosophies they represent: One suggests compassion, the other crucification, and never the twain shall meet.
But Bekmambetov finds his footing when Messala betrays the family that took him in and Ben-Hur is sold into the slave hold of a Roman warship — this film may be a plea for love and humanity, but that’s just not what you get from the guy who directed “Wanted” (which, lest you forget, ended with James McAvoy looking into the camera and essentially calling the audiences pussies for not shooting people to get what they want from life). Bekmambetov may be a sweetheart in real life, but he’s a sadist behind the camera, and “Ben-Hur” is the most convincing and compelling proof of that to date.
The rowing sequences here are significantly shorter than those in the previous films, but they dwell on the carnage and the brutality like none other. The attack on Ben-Hur’s boat is so immersive it’s practically a VR experience, as flaming arrows scream into the galley and the weight of dead slaves threaten to pull our hero to the bottom of the sea. The sequence walks a fine line between selling the horrors of inhumanity and serving them up for dinner, but very few movies about Jesus have managed to resist the indulgences for which he died (spoiler alert).
The sillier things get, the more confident Bekmambetov becomes. When Ben-Hur washes ashore a free man, he’s taken in (and later trained) by Morgan Freeman’s dreadlocked Nubian gambler. A staple of this story, the character is greatly expanded upon here, a Swiss Army Man who’s used to cut all of the corners the film needed to squeeze this story into less than two hours. Not only does Freeman narrate the film (natch), he all but carries Ben-Hur towards redemption, and even kind of organizes the climactic chariot race. And yet, for all of that, you’d have no way of knowing this helpful African ex-pat was a sheik unless you looked him up on the film’s Wikipedia page.
But that chariot race is almost worth the wait. It’s certainly not better than the iconic sequence that Wyler captured in widescreen with 70mm film lenses that were capable of capturing so many of his 50,000 extras in a single shot, but Bekmambetov is seeking a very different kind of spectacle. Reflecting the present moment by deploying (and likely destroying) a number of Go-Pro cameras and the like, “The Bourne Ultimatum” cinematographer Oliver Wood all but drops you onto the sands of the Circus Maximus. You’re there as the teams of horses stampede over stranded competitors, and you’re there when Ben-Hur is knocked to the ground and dragged behind his steeds at 40mph.
Bekmambetov, to his credit, uses that visceral feeling to compensate for the digital elements that have watered down so much of his previous work, reserving the more obvious special effects to expand the action in ways that weren’t possible for previous tellings of this story. Where tripwires were once used to send the horses crashing to the ground, computer trickery can now be used to spare the animals their suffering and manipulate their panicked digital avatars to run wild through the arena stands. George Miller won’t be losing any of this action, but — at least during this one sequence — Bekmambetov justifies his ill-advised attempt to reimagine this timeless story for modern audiences.
More impressively for a filmmaker who so lacks a human touch, the director never forgets that this is meant to be an epic of faith and forgiveness. His handling of Christ’s death is about as graceful as you might expect from the guy who gave the world “Apollo 18” (the moon rocks! they’re evil!), but Bekmambetov tweaks this immortal tale so that it privileges love over hate. That’s hardly an accomplishment in and of itself, but his commitment to the idea is clear and consistent, and it carries the movie on its shoulders long after the characters have grown too weak to bear that particular cross.
If each new “Ben-Hur” is a reflection of the time in which it was made, this one may remember 2016 time as a grim time for blockbuster entertainment. But while our standards may change with the wind, our natures are set in stone. “Your situation is not unique,” one character barks at the film’s eponymous hero, “and neither are you.” However generic, forgettable and foolish this “Ben-Hur” may be, it mines some ancient strength in those words.
“Ben-Hur” opens in theaters on Friday, August 19.