A beloved, multiple Oscar-winning epic remade by the director of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – what could possibly go wrong? The obvious and correct answer is quite a bit. Timur Bekmambetov turns out a film that’s most memorable for the wardrobe atrocity forced upon poor Morgan Freeman – his Nubian sheikh rocks a robe/dreadlocks combo that makes him look like a cross between a shaolin monk and a character from Battlefield Earth.
Despite this setback he’s still able to supply some much-needed gravitas, taking Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) under his wing and channelling Gladiator’s Oliver Reed as he doles out pep talks ahead of the big chariot race. We’re jumping ahead, though. Before Freeman’s introduction there’s time to visit a Jerusalem populated by an endless parade of good-looking folks with flowing locks and perfectly groomed beards, one of whom is Jesus himself (Rodrigo Santoro).
Expanding the role of Christ and having him resemble a male model who occasionally chucks out choice proverbs is just one of many, many missteps. He gets an introduction befitting the heartthrob of a Nicholas Sparks‘ adaptation and is later seen pacifying a brutish legionary like Obi-Wan Kenobi would a Stormtrooper. Start to finish his presence is poorly handled, mostly coming across as an awkward and unnecessary distraction strung along to set up the horribly rushed let’s-all-be-friends finale.
Rushed pretty much sums the film up. The drastically reduced running time contributes to a ruinous mishandling of character arcs, Huston’s titular hero forced to change hats far too quickly. In the space of two short hours (the 1959 version was well over three) he appears as a high-born Jewish prince, a desperate, close-to-death galley slave and a horse-whispering chariot racer. The latter two roles produce some solid action, but a laughably last-minute conversion to a repentant servant of God torpedoes any goodwill in the bank.