Ben-Hur review: A gentle Roman epic with a burst of thrills

Jack Huston plays Judah Ben-Hur
Jack Huston plays Judah Ben-Hur

Matt Adcock reviews Ben-Hur (12A), starring Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell

The Romans, eh? What have they ever given us cinematically? Well apart from Gladiator, Spartacus and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, plus maybe King Arthur if you’re a Kiera Knightley fan. And now we have updated remake of Ben-Hur, minus the religious sub title but with added sub-300 CGI this time.

It was always going to be tough to follow up the classic 1959 Charlton Heston-starring, multi-Oscar-winning version of the novel by Lew Wallace but cool action director Timur ‘Wanted’ Bekmambetoc gives it a go. Meet Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a Jewish prince who loses everything when his adopted Roman brother Messala (Toby ‘Warcraft’ Kebbell) turns on his family. Sentenced to slavery on a galley in the Roman navy, Judah vows to one day get revenge. Revenge in the circus! Not the clowns and trapeze variety but the bloody chariot racing where death and dishonour dished out in an ancient Fast & Furious destruction derby race.

Cue an hour of tame background and vaguely interesting character build up in which Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) pops up in various cameos – doing some woodwork, obviously, saying some peacemaking soundbites and helping people including Judah when he stumbles on en route to his slavery commission. Also in the mix is Pontius Pilate (Pilou ‘Lucy’ Asbæk). Hmm, I wonder if his seemingly random encounters with Jesus will have any pay-off down the line?

Anyway, Judah’s unlikely ticket to vengeance comes when his path crosses chariot team trainer Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman) who is willing to wager his fortune to give the wronged Jew a chance at racing his traitorous brother. Everything bar one exciting sea battle feels like padding, it’s the chariots of fire that is the selling point of this movie but it takes a while to get to.

The good news is that Bekmambetov unleashes his action violence chops at the climactic chariot showdown, and for that 15 minutes, Ben-Hur becomes an adrenalin overload of brutal racing excitement.

If you’re in the mood for a mostly gentle sandal-em-up which pays off big time at the end, this is a decent enough effort.

The chariot race is especially effective in IMAX where you can almost feel the sand in your eyes.