“Ben-Hur” and Charlton Heston are inextricably linked in the public mind.
But the new, $100 million version of Ben-Hur owes less to the 1959 big-screen epic than to the 1880 Lew Wallace novel, “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” on which both are based. The result is a surprisingly non-campy, more explicitly Christian meditation on slavery and freedom, revenge and forgiveness that also happens to have that climactic chariot-race thrill ride that helped make the first film famous.
The slightly different approach shouldn’t be too surprising since one of the film’s co-writers is John Ridley, who wrote the 2013 slavery classic “12 Years a Slave,” and its co-producers are Mark Burnett and wife Roma Downey, known for their many faith-based projects. But not until the very end does “Ben-Hur” threaten to collapse under a heavy hand. Until then, it’s a mostly well-acted, straightforward period drama, free from the stylistic quirks for which director Timur Bekmambetov (“Wanted,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”) is known.
It’s the time of Jesus Christ, and the place is Roman-dominated Jerusalem. Messala Severus (Toby Kebbelland Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) are brothers in every way but blood. Messala, a Roman, was adopted as a boy by Judah’s well-off Jewish family, and the two are inseparable. Near the start of “Ben-Hur,” the two are racing their horses, foreshadowing a much more dangerous race near the film’s end.
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That brotherly bond is sundered when Messala goes off to fight for Rome, returning years later with Judean governor Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek) and an army of soldiers to show the Jews of Jerusalem who’s boss. There’s been unrest lately, as many Jewish “zealots” (early Christians) turn against Rome.
This is the beginning of the rift between Messala and Judah, and it widens when Judah refuses to turn over names of suspected zealots. After someone tries to assassinate Pilate, Judah is blamed, and Messala completely turns on him, sending him into slavery.
The fuse of revenge is then lit and will detonate on the chariot track several years later. The race — a blast of charging horses, broken wheels and fallen riders — is a visual rush and a nice tip of the toga to that famous Heston sequence. That Bekmambetov can now stage it in 3D doesn’t really add much.
Huston and Kebbell flesh out these characters, and Morgan Freeman brings a sense of wise solemnity as an African named Ilderim who becomes Yoda to Judah’s Skywalker. There are times when everyone looks a little too modern, although at least they’re more characters than caricatures like those in Ridley Scott’s 2014 biblical-era misfire, “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” On the other hand, Rodrigo Santoro (“The 33,” “300: Rise of an Empire”) as Jesus doesn’t have much to do but look alternately peaceful and pained.
Bekmambetov and writers Ridley and Keith R. Clarke resist the temptation to camp it up. For some, this might be the film’s ultimate flaw, that it takes the material too seriously.
The new “Ben-Hur” doesn’t eclipse its predecessor, so it might lose this cinematic chariot race. But it doesn’t crash and burn either, and that itself is something of a miracle.
Rated: PG-13. 124 min. 2D and 3D: Fayette Mall, Franklin, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Woodhill. 2D only: Georgetown, Winchester.