As anyone who’s read my reviews with some regularity knows, I think it’s generally better to remake a film that was bad or mixed in previous forms than something that was a classic. When your most notable predecessor holds the record for most Oscar wins, it’s fair to say you’re remaking a classic. I do get the impulse for remaking Ben-Hur, though; the 1959 classic is also epic in its length, and between our seemingly shorter attention spans these days and the advances in technology that have come over nearly six decades, plus a rise in the number of films aimed at evangelical audiences, an update to the film must have seemed like an obvious choice. But in spite of some admittedly impressive visual fights, this Ben-Hur feels unnecessary.
Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a wealthy citizen of Jerusalem, finds his entire life stripped away by his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell), now a Roman soldier, after Ben-Hur is accused of an assassination attempt on Pontius Pilate. After years of being a slave to the Romans, Ben-Hur manages to return home with one thing on his mind: revenge.
The relationship between Ben-Hur and Messala drives the story, with their close friendship giving way to disdain and, ultimately, forgiveness. Kebbell and Huston do a lot to sell this relationship, but they aren’t able to completely compensate for the relatively small amount of time the film gives the two together. The film does just enough to establish the various relationships that form this story, but that’s not the same as creating relationships that will make an audience care. That includes the film’s mentions and showings of Jesus, here portrayed as a leader of nonviolence in a city filled with those craving violence.
Where the film does earn some value is in its fight sequences, which director Timur Bekmambetov manages to craft without going to the extremes of his earlier works (see: Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). The chariot sequence in particular is intense, with a palpable sense of danger that highlights just how brutal a confrontation this is for Ben-Hur, Messala and the other racers.
Still, it’s troubling that for the ultimate message the film wants to push – that forgiveness is more powerful than revenge – the film really revels in the revenge part up until the end. The post-chariot scenes feel rushed, like the filmmakers know they have to hit certain points in order to wrap the whole story up. The hints that revenge isn’t the answer are there, to be fair, but when you have Morgan Freeman helping advance your revenge narrative, you can guess which idea has more power.