"It's not as bad as I expected."

I imagine that's not the kind of audience response the makers of Ben-Hur hoped to inspire.

But it's the best I can do for this un-epic faith-based 3D adaptation of the best-selling 1890 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by lawyer and Union Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace. A populist Christian apologetic, the book is about two violent, vengeful men who reappraise their lives after crossing paths with Jesus.

Directed without much flair or panache by the usually adventurous Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch, Wanted), this is the sixth screen version of the novel, including that has yielded a 2003 feature cartoon and a clumsy 2010 miniseries. It is best known for Charlton Heston's loud, loutish portrayal in the lavish 1959 studio-made mega-epic.

The new Ben-Hur isn't much of an improvement. Dominated by CGI effects, it's a soap opera better fit for basic cable.

When a Zealot uses Judah's house to launch an attack against Pilate, Massala puts Judah's entire family to the sword and condemns his brother to life as a galley slave.

Ben-Hur escapes and, aided by a rad-looking, dreadlock-sporting Morgan Freeman, he becomes a chariot racer to challenge Massala, a famous chariot driver. The two men are destined to face off in a deadly battle.

Ben-Hur is riddled with problems. Huston (grandson of film legend John Huston) plays Ben-Hur as a sensitive aesthete. His transformation into a bloodthirsty, avenging warrior just doesn't play. Kebbell's Massala has the opposite problem. He's such a brutish believer in Rome's martial creed, it's hard to believe he'd ever be swayed by the message of Jesus, who is a peripheral character throughout the film.

After all, that's the endgame.

Produced by Mark Burnett, the man behind a slew of faith-based works including Son of God and The Bible, Ben-Hur tries to elicit a spiritual response.

While its depiction of Jesus' suffering is graphic, the film's religious message is so gooey, soft, and feel-good, it might as well be a New Age pamphlet.

Ben Hur just doesn't measure up - either as an action picture or a religious testament.





Ben Hur

Two stars (Out of four stars)

  • Directed by Timur Bekmambetov. With Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Morgan Freeman, Nazanin Boniadi. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.

  • Running time: 2 hours, 4 mins.

  • Parent's guide: PG-13 (disturbing images and sequences of violence).

  • Playing at: Area theaters.