In a summer of disappointing reboots, underperforming sequels and rejected franchise bait, Ben-Hur is something rare: a remake no one asked for but weary moviegoers might accept as a small gift for lack of any better option. Timur Bekmambetov's reimagining of William Wyler's 1959 epic, itself preceded by two silent versions and the 1880 novel upon which all four are based, benefits from low expectations. It also stands as one of the season’s better studio releases.
You know how Ben-Hur ends even if you've never seen Ben-Hur, but how it gets there might take some remembering. Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell) are adoptive brothers in Roman-occupied Jerusalem, a dynamic that grows strained as Messala, an orphaned Roman taken in by Judah's wealthy Jewish family, grows to resent his outsider status. (This is the kind of movie in which brothers refer to one another exclusively as “brother” lest we forget that, in sword-and-sandal times, people might have spoken more formally.) This prompts Messala to take the only path he finds acceptable: joining Caesar's army.
Huston, so evocative on Boardwalk Empire, is no Charlton Heston, nor does he need to be — his Ben-Hur lacks the commanding gravitas of his most famous onscreen predecessor but evinces a quiet confidence. His presence is almost gentle, his strength unseen until explicitly called for. Not coincidentally, Jesus is there, too — first in a series of moral interludes and eventually as the thematic lynchpin of the entire film, inspiring our hero and all other upstanding good guys.
Judah and Messala find themselves on opposite sides of a worsening conflict after the latter returns from a years-long military campaign, his status improved but his demeanor worsened. What follows is a heel turn of biblical proportions: After a misunderstanding, Messala banishes his former brother to life as a galley slave, a kind of prolonged death sentence. Like most other story developments here, their schism is an inevitability that's neither belabored nor fully realized; Bekmambetov seems in a rush to move from one beat to the next, condensing into two hours what Wyler let breathe over three and a half.
What he forgets in doing so is that every epic has its boring bits, not by coincidence but by necessity and design — narrative valleys make the peaks that much higher. In paring down and streamlining its source material, this new version also saps its heft. Judah's five years a galley slave are condensed to as many minutes; Huston does an admirable job of showing the toll of this experience on his weathered face, but there are more stories to be told.
Bekmambetov hits grace notes throughout, namely the Romans' march on Jerusalem and Judah's near-fatal galley excursion, both occasions marked by chanting and deep, ominous drums. The director, when allowed time to let his set pieces announce themselves with proper grandiosity and play out to their logical end, gives the impression that, with 30 more minutes and the studio's full trust in its audience's patience, he could have turned this into an actual event. What we have instead is neither action movie nor epic — you're not likely to check your watch, but you probably won’t be fully transported, either.
All of this buildup is in service of the climactic chariot race, of course, and Bekmambetov stages the extended sequence with confidence and grit. Every charioteer besides Judah and Messala is present only to die a vicious death, the equestrian chaos spilling into the stands and signaling a small victory for the oppressed in their fight against tyranny; these ancient also-rans serve that role valiantly, exiting the arena (and their mortal coils) in ways both terrible and awesome.
With all its talk about the Romans' love of bloodsport and spectacle, Ben-Hur at times seems one pointed monologue away from self-reflexively commenting on moviegoers' thirst for simulated violence. After the race's glorious conclusion, Bekmambetov comes dangerously close to interrogating the very notion of vengeance as spectator sport, suggesting with a brief shot of a defeated charioteer's unconscious body that this victory was Pyrrhic.
It's the perfect ending — and then the film goes on for another 10 minutes so that subtext can become text. Ben-Hur doesn't medal, but it does make it past the finish line. After the last few months, we may have no choice but to accept that its competitors have crashed and cheer it on as the last blockbuster standing.