The critics have not been kind to this remake of the highly-respected Charlton Heston epic from 1959 (itself a remake), so can I find a kind word - or two?
Heston brought stature and gravitas to the role of Judah Ben-Hur, Jewish prince turned galley-slave turned charioteer. Jack Huston is handsome and hunky and makes a rather bland prince, but he acquires a bit of stature in the galley scenes and definitely carries the second half of the movie. Toby Kebbell totally lacks the charisma that Stephen Boyd brought to the role of Messala, the Roman centurion who turns against his adopted Jewish brother; Kebbell rarely looks much more than an extra from television's Roman romp Spartacus. Morgan Freeman, of course, oozes gravitas as the narrator and race-horse owner, but for some reason his braided hair kept reminding me of Whoopi Goldberg - so much for gravitas!
This movie often seems little more than a mini-series translated to the big screen. It only comes into its own in the galley battle scenes and the chariot race finale, both of which blend CGI and stunt action to stunning effect. We know the plot a bit too well: a huge chunk of it was recycled in Ridley Scott's Gladiator, and now it's recycled again. The last days of Jesus of Nazareth (Rodrigo Santoro) are more prominent than they were in 1959, when Christ was only seen in reaction scenes (which was oddly more powerful than here), and there's a change of ending which robs the climax of drama rather than adding to it.
Gore Vidal liked to claim that he scripted a gay sub-text to the Judah/Messala relationship, but, the 'bromance' was more Butch & Sundance than Brokeback. If anything, there's more intensity in the early scenes of this version - nothing that could really be read as gay. 1959 gave us a great movie;this one isn't great and if it isn't actually bad, it's somewhere between okay and nearly good.