‘Ben-Hur’: Chariots of mire, zooming in too many directions
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It’s a miracle!
Who knew that in 33 A.D., whether you were a Jewish slave, a Roman soldier, a wise African nomad or Jesus himself, odds were you had flawless, shiny, perfectly aligned white teeth.
Call that dental-based observation a nitpick if you will, but the dazzling pearly whites sported by the major players in “Ben-Hur” take you out of the movie, and that’s just one small example of how this admittedly impressive-looking but flashy and bombastic version of the fictional biblical legend often plays like the next chapter of the “Fast and Furious” franchise rather than a serious period epic.
From the gimmicky and ineffective 3-D to the dialogue that wavers between New Testament cherry-picking and something out of a modern-day action film to the climactic chariot race edited at such a frenzied pace as to be nearly incomprehensible, “Ben-Hur” has a “What were they thinking?” feel from start to finish, much like the almost-forgotten “The Legend of Tarzan” from way back in early July.
In both cases, current-day special effects wizardry means the grand spectacle sequences are more impressive than any previous versions of the oft-told tale.
And in both cases, so what? Nifty visuals don’t carry the day. The corny dialogue, the attractive and talented actors who somehow don’t seem of the era and the ham-handed plot developments sink “Ben-Hur,” just as those elements torpedoed “The Legend of Tarzan.”
The new “Ben-Hur” is not a pure remake of William Wyler’s 1959 blockbuster that won 11 Academy Awards (including best picture, best director and best actor for Charlton Heston). Although both movies are based on Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel (there’s a brief mention of a “Ben-Hur” in the Bible, but the entire story is a fictional conceit), the 2016 edition is a more complex and spiritual telling, focusing on forgiveness as much as revenge.
Jack Huston (nephew of Anjelica Huston, grandson of director John Huston, and best known for his work as Richard Harrow in “Boardwalk Empire”) plays Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish nobleman in Roman-occupied Jerusalem who calls himself a friend of Rome and believes in keeping the peace, even if it means his less-privileged brethren suffer.
Toby Kebbell (never quite successful in losing his British accent) plays Judah’s adoptive brother Messala, a Roman orphan who never feels accepted by Judah and the family.
When Messala feels slighted at a family celebration, he breaks away, joins the Roman army and turns into a total jerk. This guy goes from social to psycho in the blink of an eye, and in a few years’ time, Messala is a big-time Roman soldier and the right-hand man to none other than Pontius Pilate — and he does nothing to save Judah and the rest of his adoptive family when the Romans stomp through the city.
“Ben-Hur” is big on title cards taking us “Eight Years Earlier” and “Five Years Later.” We can tell time has passed because the actors sport longer hair or fresh scars — but even in the worst of times, pretty much everyone looks as if they’re filming a fashion ad.
Director Timur Bekmambetov (a talented stylist whose work includes the underrated Angelina Jolie vehicle “Wanted” and the loopy guilty pleasure “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”) is a mismatch for this material. A battle sequence set from the point of view of the shackled slaves in the bowels of a ship drags on endlessly and feels self-indulgent.
Every time the Brazilian heartthrob Rodrigo Santoro appears as Jesus and quietly recites verses from the New Testament, it’s as if he’s wandered in from another movie. And not a good movie.
Morgan Freeman plays a wealthy Nubian sheik who trains Ben-Hur for a big chariot race against his estranged brother. Because he’s Morgan Freeman, he’s also the narrator for this story, and COME ON — Morgan Freeman as the wise and knowing African nomad?
“Ben-Hur” struggles to find an identity and never really gets there. The well-intentioned efforts to achieve moving, faith-based awakenings are undercut by the casually violent, PG-13 action sequences.
Instead of having the strength of its convictions, it comes across as a film hedging its bets.
Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Timur Bekmambetov and written by Keith Clarke and John Ridley. Running time: 125 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of violence and disturbing images). Opens Friday at local theaters.