Chariot before the horse
How bad is the new Ben-Hur? Let me count the ways.
I’ll start with the script, wellspring of all lousy movies. This subliterate act of vandalism was perpetrated by Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley. Did either man bother to read Gen. Lew Wallace’s novel, or even the Classics Illustrated comic book? Did they sit down to watch the 1925 silent with Ramon Novarro or the 1959 Charlton Heston remake and doze off? Of all Ben-Hurs, this is the shortest since 1907; how did Clarke and Ridley cover the ground in 123 minutes? Simple: They cut half the story. Gone is Quintus Arrius, the Roman general who adopts Ben-Hur (Tony Huston) when the galley slave saves his life in battle. Gone, too, is Ben-Hur’s rise to wealth and fame as a Roman citizen.
The dialogue sounds like it was written by 8-year-olds. In the trailer, Messala (Toby Kebbell) screams, “Are we having fun now, brother?” at Ben-Hur during the chariot race, so I knew not to expect soaring eloquence. Still, I was startled when Ben-Hur saw Messala’s battle armor and gasped, “Wow!” How long will it be, I thought, before somebody here says “OK”? Answer: about 45 minutes. The speaker was Morgan Freeman as the owner of Ben-Hur’s chariot team. And he said it twice. Freeman’s a smart actor; why didn’t he ask to change the line? Maybe he figured this was a stinker no matter what he did.
Ben-Hur’s director is Timur Bekmambetov, whose reputation rests on two terrible Russian vampire movies (Night Watch and Day Watch) and a terrible American one (Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer). Will his next movie be better (which seems hardly likely) or worse (which seems impossible)? Let us wait and hope for the best.
Performances? Jack Huston as Ben-Hur shows little of the screen magnetism that runs in his famous family (Anjelica is his aunt, John his grandfather). Toby Kebbell rivals him in low-wattage presence. Morgan Freeman blows them both off the screen just by showing up. No one else makes the slightest impression.
The chariot race? This shortest Ben-Hur has the longest race, which shows where the movie’s heart is. But less really is more; the 1925 and 1959 races will have your heart pounding; this one, gussied up with the usual physics-defying CGI, is as ho-hum as a Fast and Furious chase.
Finally, the movie ends happily. Not because Ben-Hur’s mother and sister (Ayelet Zurer, Sofia Black-D’Elia) are cured of their leprosy or because the Hurs accept the Carpenter of Nazareth as the Messiah, but because Ben-Hur and Messala (literally) hug and make up, then (literally!) ride off into the sunset together.
The movie has one merciful touch: Wallace, whose novel is so wantonly desecrated, is never mentioned in the credits. Wherever he is, I’m sure he’s very happy about that.