“Ben-Hur,” starring Jack Huston as the Jewish prince in Roman-occupied Jerusalem, is the latest incarnation of Lew Wallace’s classic melodrama – a warhorse, in more ways than one, of print, stage, and screen. I’m not sure we need another version, least of all this tepid 3-D extravaganza.
A general rule of thumb has emerged: Movies in 3-D almost always feature dimensionless people. “Ben-Hur” is a striking example of this rule. Despite all the strain and suffering, it’s difficult to get worked up about anybody.
Despite its gazillion Oscars, I was never the biggest fan of the 1959 William Wyler version starring Charlton Heston, but it did have that great chariot scene. The chariot scene in the new “Ben-Hur,” directed by Timur Bekmambetov with a lot of sound and fury signifying very little, is heavy on the CGI effects, which, compared to the Wyler version, seems like cheating. Nowadays you can do just about anything with computer-generated graphics, which, paradoxically, takes much of the magic out of the movies. I liked it better when I knew that the horses, the chariots, and the riders were all real all the time.
As Judah Ben-Hur – full names, please – Huston is serviceable, but he’s a finer actor than this costumed kitsch allow him to be. As Judah’s boyhood best friend and adoptive brother, Messala, against whom Judah will eventually square off in the Roman Circus, Toby Kebbell has even less to work with than Huston, and he bears a disconcerting resemblance to motivational guru Tony Robbins. Morgan Freeman lends his pearly tones and gravitas to the role of the Nubian sheikh who trains Judah for the chariot ride. Freeman made his big splash in movies in “Street Smart,” playing a vicious pimp. He’s come a long way, though not always as an actor. Grade: C- (Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images.)