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Family, love, betrayal, torture, revenge and chariot racing…Timur Bekmambetov brings it all to us in the latest incarnation of Ben-Hur, a man whose single-mindedness keeps him alive and ultimately victorious.

The setting is Jerusalem and the story runs parallel to Jesus’s final days there as well. Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston, American Hustle (2013)), a Jewish prince, lives in comfort with his family despite the tension growing between Roman occupiers and radical zealots. A pacifist at heart, Judah is for the most part able to avoid the tension, spending his days in friendly competition with his adopted brother and best friend, Messala (Toby Kebbell, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), Prince of Persia (2010)).

After Messala departs to fight with the Roman armies in an attempt to earn respect and restore the lost glory to his family name (his grandfather had apparently been part of the assassination of Caesar), Judah settles into marital bliss with his new wife and even aids a wounded outlaw Zealot despite heartily deploring the violence they employ.

Anyone who has seen any of the four previous versions of Ben-Hur knows that these happy days will come abruptly to an end, although Judah’s own actions indirectly cause the catastrophe that sets the real story into motion. Hint: there are no falling roof files in this version, and it’s ultimately Messala that sends his entire adopted family to certain death.

It’s off to the galley ships for our hero, where he manages to survive five years of hell, the seed of anger and bitterness growing within him until the desire for revenge becomes the only thing that keeps him alive and ultimately the only survivor of a sea battle (dizzyingly shot and arguably one of the best scenes of the movie). Washing ashore, he’s taken in by Ilderim (a delightfully dry, truth-telling Morgan Freeman (London Has Fallen (2016)), and solid plans for avenging his family begin to fall into place, culminating in the legendary chariot race.

Ben-Hur, for the most part, simply does not stop. From the opening race between Judah and Messala until the no-holds-barred climatic competition, there is action throughout. Viewing the movie in 3D only emphasizes this, and there were certainly moments that have you holding your breath and gripping the seat.

One warning…it goes without saying that this is Ben-Hur and so yes, there is animal violence, including some where you least expect it. The film is rated PG-13, but if a viewer is sensitive to this, it’s good to know going in.

One of the more controversial elements seems to be the inclusion of Jesus’s story, paralleling this one. It’s true to the source material: Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was published in 1880 and does include the final events of Jesus’s life (here portrayed by Rodrigo Santoro (Focus (2015), 300: Rise of an Empire (2014)). Unfortunately, some of these scenes in the film seem shoehorned in, and one in particular should have been removed completely since the narrative ground to a complete halt and almost seemed to have come from a completely different movie altogether.

The problem is not in including these scenes, it’s the quality of the scenes that are jarringly unlike the rest of the fast-paced film. Producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey could have easily included all of the stories without stopping everything to make absolutely positively double-sure that we get it…the story is about forgiveness. Does this theme relate to the movie and the end in particular? Absolutely…but it could have been incorporated in a more organic manner.

To me, the most interesting aspect is that neither of the main characters are 100% good or evil…Judah’s decisions in the beginning of the film arguably cause the fate that befalls his family, and his myopic quest for revenge threatens to alienate him from those he loves. Messala’s betrayal is only partially motivated by ambition, in truth he’s just doing his job and his brother’s actions force him to respond in the only way he realistically can. Seeing this and grudgingly admitting to myself that, well, our good guy and our bad guy aren’t that clear-cut…it was a very clever (and realistic) way to present these characters.

It’s a big movie, with big shoes to fill, but I’d argue that Bekmambetov did a very good job with this re-imagining of the original novel. The sea battle scene in particular was breathtakingly claustrophobic and panic-inducing by turns (Judah’s entire time in the belly of the galley ship is from his point of view, with only flashing glimpses of the combat raging outside). The themes of forgiveness and love are appropriate and believable. Despite the clumsy handling of the scenes with Jesus in them, the overall message comes through and was a welcome premise in a movie that is otherwise full of a lotta violence and a lotta ugly parts of history.


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