Timur Bekmambetov's reimagining of William Wyler's 1959 epic, itself preceded by two silent versions and the 1880 novel upon which all four are based, benefits from low expectations. It also stands as one of the season's better studio releases. You know how Ben-Hur ends even if you've never seen Ben-Hur, but how it gets there might take some remembering. Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell) are adoptive brothers in Roman-occupied Jerusalem, a dynamic that grows strained as Messala, an orphaned Roman taken in by Judah's wealthy Jewish family, grows to resent his outsider status. This prompts him to take the only path he finds acceptable: joining Caesar's army.
Huston is no Charlton Heston, nor does he need to be — his Ben-Hur lacks the commanding gravitas of his most famous onscreen predecessor but evinces a quiet confidence. Judah and Messala find themselves on opposite sides of a worsening conflict after the latter returns from a years-long military campaign, his status improved but his demeanor worsened. What follows is a heel turn of biblical proportions: After a misunderstanding, Messala banishes his former brother to life as a galley slave. Like most other story developments here, their schism is an inevitability that's neither belabored nor fully realized; Bekmambetov seems in a rush, condensing into two hours what Wyler let breathe over three and a half.
All of this buildup is in service of the climactic chariot race, of course, and Bekmambetov stages the extended sequence with confidence and grit. Every charioteer besides Judah and Messala is only present to die a vicious death, exiting the arena (and their mortal coil) in ways both terrible and awesome.