"Ben-Hur" Is Impressive But Falls Short of Being Epic

Movie Review - Jackie K Cooper
"Ben-Hur" (Paramount)

It has been over fifty years since we first set our eyes on Charlton Heston straining to control a chariot pulled by a team of horses as he challenged Stephen Boyd in a race for life and death. That occurred in the spectacular movie "Ben-Hur" (1959). Now Lew Wallace's classic novel has been brought to the screen once more. Although the chariot race is still the centerpiece of the movie, the overall presentation is just a bit more muted.

Producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey seem to have wanted more substance and less emphasis on the action in this version. The story concerns Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a prince of Israel. He lives the good life in Jerusalem with his family, which includes his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell). Rome is occupying the city but Judah thinks peace can be maintained. He is wrong.

Due to a variety of circumstances Judah is taken prisoner by the Romans and is consigned to slavery as an oarsman in a Roman ship. His brother Messala becomes a higher up in the Roman army. The two men have gone from being loving brothers to bitter enemies. The race, which occurs in the latter part of the film, is between two men seeking revenge over the other.

The details of the early plot are conveyed in an understandable matter and thus the rise of the rivalry is completely explained. We understand how Judah is torn between his desire for peace and his protective loyalties for his family, friends and neighbors. The character of the man and the foundation of his faith are fully on display.

What is lacking in this new version is star power. Morgan Freeman is the biggest name in the cast but his role as the wealthy man who trains Judah for the chariot race is not a major one. "Ben-Hur" needs a dynamic leading man and Huston is not that - not yet. He has the acting skills and might even possess the necessary charisma, but he is a new sight for people to see. Charlton Heston was at the top of his game as "Ben-Hur" and he had legions of fans to thrill to his every action. Even Stephen Boyd was more of a star at that time than Tony Kebbell is now. Huston and Kebbell will probably go on from this and have major careers but this film is when they are in the beginning stages.

This "Ben-Hur" thrills you with its story but the movie lacks the emotional factors that would have pushed it higher in entertainment value. There are thrills to be had in watching the chariot race (especially in 3-D) but there are no emotional chills from the encounters with Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro) as there were in the other film.

The film is rated PG-13 for some violence.

"Ben-Hur" offers a compelling storyline, told with competence by virtually unknown actors. It is an impressive act of filmmaking but it just needs that extra shot of razzamatazz. Audiences still long for epic movies.

I scored "Ben-Hur" a Heston-less 7 out of 10.

Jackie K Cooper