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The main reason (but not the only reason) to watch William Wyler's Oscar-dominating Ben-Hur was for its chariot race -- a spectacular set piece in 1959 that wowed critics and audiences, and likely helped Wyler's picture pick up a whopping 11 Academy Awards. More than 50 years later, the main reason (but not the only reason) to watch a remade Ben-Hur is for its chariot race, though the desensitized, seen-it-all-before audiences of 2016 likely aren't going to rally behind Timur Bekmambetov's period drama in similar fashion. These days, Ben-Hur will struggle to win its opening weekend, so forget about sweeping the Oscars.
Which is unfortunate, because Bekmambetov's Ben-Hur is a commendable, if unspectacular, recounting of Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Satisfying the appetites of Game of Thrones fans as they patiently await season seven, Ben-Hur spins its period epic into a melodramatic and opulent historical soap, though one that's worthy of a big-screen watch if you tend to favor sword-and-sandal cinema. If you think Gladiator is the best movie in the world, for example, you'll likely leave Ben-Hur happy.
Like the renowned and still-recognizable 1959 drama that precedes it, Ben-Hur tells the rise-fall-and-rise-again story of a Jewish prince facing Roman persecution during the time of Jesus Christ. And Bekmambetov's version deserves proper credit for firmly establishing the emotional bind between its main antagonists: Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston, Boardwalk Empire) an amiable and wealthy Jew; and his adopted brother Messala (Tobey Kebbell), a Roman soldier. Despite its period setting, Ben-Hur continues to have relevant contemporary themes, with family members on opposing sides of political conflicts, and drama conjured when one person makes a single poor decision, then spends years dealing with the consequences.
In Ben-Hur's case, his mistake comes in supporting a zealot, who betrays Ben-Hur's trust on the day a Roman leader marches through town. There's an assassination attempt, launched from Ben-Hur's plush abode. Messala can't defend his adopted family from the political storm that rains down on his adopted family. And before you can say "Charlton Heston," Judah Ben-Hur is banished to slavery and assigned to the slave quarters on a Roman ship.
The relationship between the brothers provides a strong enough foundation for Timur Bekmambetov's drama to rest, though the duration of Ben-Hur's time in exile and his personal journey toward inevitable vengeance slows Ben-Hur down to a steady jog. The movie neither sags nor sprints as we stop of at several familiar locations on a silver-screen hero's path to redemption. In Ben-Hur's case, it involves partnering with fellow, disgruntled native Ilderim (played by the always welcome Morgan Freeman), and training for a death-defying chariot race in the bloodthirsty circus for the Romans' sport.
The race, if we're being honest, is worth the price of admission (though not in 3D, for the technology contributes nothing to Bekmambetov's drama). A bruising, pulse-racing mix of savagery and CGI, the competition musters tension and thrills, even as its outcome remains solidly predictable. But Bekmambetov, best known for the action-packed Wanted, employs inventive tricks to put the audience over, under (yes, under) and around the stampeding horses and barreling chariots to deliver a rousing spectacle.
If only the rest of the movie could match that sequence's intensity. It doesn't. But Ben-Hur dedicates enough time to its central relationships, its underlying political debates, the overt Christian teachings and the period production values so that when the chariot race finally arrives, we care about its outcome. I went into Ben-Hur thinking we didn't need another interpretation of this story, but I left satisfied by the new one that we received.