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Movie review: This is not an epic ‘Ben-Hur’

Morgan Freeman and Jack Huston in “Ben-Hur.”
Morgan Freeman and Jack Huston in “Ben-Hur.” Paramount Pictures

Forth from the stable after a decades-long snooze comes the old warhorse “Ben-Hur.”

Comes at a gallop, this most horsey “Hur” yet.

It bursts from the barn in an opening scene showing Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and his best-buddy-soon-to-be-worst-enemy Messala (Toby Kebbell) on horseback racing hell-bent for breakfast across the Judean desert, whooping and hollering in manly high spirits until — whoops! — big Ben’s steed stumbles and our hero does a face-plant into the sandy soil.

Bad omen.

Worse omen: When someone asks Messala what happened, he replies, “There was a rock.” Screenwriting will not be this picture’s strength.

The story’s signature chariot race is chaos on four feet, the most prominent feature of which is the excess of 3-D-rendered dust and gravel thrown at the lens by pounding hooves. And the movie concludes with an improbably giddy giddy-up happy ending featuring grinning riders racing to the final credits.

What we have here is a B-grade rendering of the oft-filmed classic. Where the A-list version released in 1959 had William Wyler in the director’s chair, this “Ben” has Timur Bekmambetov. Wyler was also known for “Roman Holiday,” “Funny Girl” and “The Best Years of Our Lives.” Bekmambetov made “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”

Charlton Heston gave a career-defining performance in the ’59 version. Huston (you know the name; he’s John’s grandson) behaves and looks like a male model in the role, with his carefully styled hair and designer-stubble beard, both achieved late in the picture when he gets to snipping his follicles with what appear to be garden shears.

The rest of the cast is populated by lesser-knowns, with the exception of Morgan Freeman, who gives the movie’s most substantive performance as a wise old (and impressively dreadlocked) nomad tribal chief who becomes Ben’s chariot trainer and race sponsor.

Bekmambetov and his creative team take extensive liberties with the 1880 Lew Wallace novel “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” the source that launched a horde of cinematic “Hurs.” Whole subplots are excised and characters’ relationships are altered almost past recognition. Essential elements remain: the fraught relationship with the stalwart Jewish Ben-Hur and the arrogant Roman Messala, the seaborne galley battle (“Ramming speed!”), the leprosy angle and the brief but significant connection between the hero and Jesus. The Stations of the Cross and the Crucifixion fly by in a flash.

Cheap and cheesy at every level, this “Ben-Hur” barely qualifies as an epic. It’s a wholly unnecessary addition to the venerable franchise.

Ben-Hur

out of 5.

Cast: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Nazanin Boniadi, Morgan Freeman and Rodrigo Santoro.

Director: Timur Bekmambetov.

Running time: 2:04.

Rated: PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images.

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