In the original Ben-Hur (the book as well as the 1959 Charlton Heston movie),
Judah is enslaved and his family imprisoned because a tile fell from
their roof and spooked the governor’s horse – an accident, cruelly
punished by Messala as a show of strength to the Jews. This time, it’s
not a loose tile but an arrow intentionally fired at Pontius Pilate by a
Jewish insurgent angry at the Roman occupation. Judah had previously
admonished the lad and his fellow zealots to stand up to Rome peaceably,
so it makes no sense for him to help him escape and then take the blame
for his assassination attempt. It also deflates his motive for wanting
revenge against Messala – you know, the whole point of the story.
Timur Bekmambetov, who’s made mostly vampire movies
before this, handles the sea battle and the chariot race with aplomb
(though the latter sequence pales in comparison with the legendary 1959
version), and Morgan Freeman is a welcome presence as Ilderim, the
African who bets on Judah’s charioteering. Indeed, it’s Ilderim’s
counsel that gets Judah to a place of “forgive and forget,” not the
influence of peripheral Brazilian Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro).
The dialogue is all shallow, modern glibness, performed without
distinction by dull actors. “Don’t they teach subtlety in Caesar’s
army?” Judah’s sister (Sofia Black-D’Elia) asks the flirtatious Messala.
(Why would they teach subtlety in the army?!) At the prospect of racing
in the Roman circus (that’s what the arena was called), Judah is
gravely informed, “In the circus, there is no law.” How seriously can
you take a movie that says “In the circus, there is no law”? How
seriously does such a movie even WANT to be taken? In the end, this
plodding remake, directed by Timur Bekmambetov ("Wanted"), never gives a valid reason for its own existence.