The last of the summer’s movie epics is a digitalized eyesore hobbled in every department by staggering incompetence. I’m talking about Ben-Hur, a remake of William Wyler’s 1959 milestone (there was also a 1925 silent version) that won Charlton Heston an Oscar in the title role and put the climactic chariot race in the action-movie canon. No time capsule inclusion or little gold men for this pisspoor reboot, however. Executive producers Mark Burnett and his wife Roma Downey have been pushing projects — The Bible on TV, Son of God in theaters — aimed squarely at the Christian right. No harm in that, except the artistic kind. The new Ben-Hur, directed Timur Bekmanbetov (Wanted), stars Jack Huston (so dazzling on Boardwalk Empire, so dreary here) as the wealthy titular Jewish prince whose jealous adopted brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell), rises so high in the Roman military he can exact revenge on our hero by turning him into galley slave.
A backstage tale about the 1959 version suggested that Wyler urged Stephen Boyd, who played Messala, to imply that he had a homoerotic thing for his brother. True or not, the idea is delicious. None of that monkey business in this staid version that puts emphasis on the film’s source material — a 1880 Lew Wallace novel entitled Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. As played by Rodrigo Santoro, Christ plays a much larger role in the 2016 version, telling our hero he has a plan for him and that plan demands forgiveness. Even when Bekmanbetov stages a CGI naval battle to liven things up, there’s no escaping the fact that this movie is more sermon than cinema.
The actors rarely rise above the level of monotonous, and that includes Morgan Freeman as an African sheik who sells horses for chariot races. To be fair, you can see a glint of mischief in Freeman’s eyes. But the movie soon blots out any hint of fun, ferocity or imagination. Ben-Hur wants to preach, brother, preach, but it lacks the essential quality to do that effectively: soul.