The phrase ‘bigger than Ben-Hur’ dates back to the famous 1959 version starring Charlton Heston. The chariot race is the most celebrated scene in the biblical epic which various versions have tried to emulate. Based on the 1880 Lew Wallace novel, Ben-Hur has reached cinema/TV screens six times over the last century, including this latest version.
With CGI being as dazzling as it is, Ben-Hur uses it to beef up its many action scenes. But is this Ben-Hur bigger than the previous one? On evidence, that would be ‘no’ due to script problems and the acting making this less than enormous.
Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a prince falsely accused of treason by his ambitious brother Messala (Toby Kebbell). A Roman army officer, Messala banishes Judah from his country. Years after tolling as a slave on sea vessels, Judah returns to seek revenge. Stronger, and more determined to undo Messala’s corrupt ways, they accept the challenge of a furious chariot race to decide the ultimate victor.
Whilst it would be unfavourable to compare this to the 1959 version, Ben-Hur suffers from its shadow. The action sequences and battles are suitably grand with the pacing flipping through the story at brisk speed. Therein lies the issue as Ben-Hur feels too condensed to do the story justice. Characterisation is only briefly tackled with a focus on spectacle more evident. The best of the roles belongs to Kebbell as Messala who shows more charisma than the bland lead. Messala elicits more sympathy than Ben-Hur which shouldn’t be the case.
The awkward blending of religious themes amongst the high-gloss action scenes jars. Drifting from bloody battles to seeing Jesus Christ help his followers creates a tonal imbalance from which the script never escapes. It’s difficult fully believing in events because the crucial epic-feel of the tale is missing. It’s strange how current remakes forget to inject vitality and magnetic characters into the narrative. This detracts from the very reason why a remake should exist, with the temptation to just watch a better previous version surely paramount.
Despite succeeding in its own version of the chariot race, Ben-Hur is a largely forgettable affair. The uneven direction, generally poor acting and clichéd story-telling fail to justify its existence. Movies should be made right the first time with the Charlton Heston version remaining the one to watch.
Reviewed by Patrick Moore
Rating out of 10: 4