Produced in 1960, the original The Magnificent Seven, directed by the celebrated John Sturges and starring such Western icons as Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson at the height of their fame, was itself but a hard reflection of Akira Kurosawa’s six-years prior work, Seven Samurai. In its import to the U.S. of A., Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven as the story of a ragtag band of heroes come to aid a village under heel relocated to the American Wild Wild West. Now 56 years on, director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) has taken it upon himself to bring his distinct visual flourishes and knack for smart aleck smarm to bear on another retelling of some of what has become one of the world’s most iconic pieces of source material.
For over half a century come and gone, not much has changed. The bandits of yesteryear are ousted. A relic of threats past. In their stead, a cruel and greed-consumed gold baron called Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard apparently channeling Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump; but he looks more Heisenberg to me) who has pocketed enough lawmen and politicians to do as he pleases. What he pleases sometimes includes public executions. Cuz what’s the use of being stinkin’ rich if you can’t up and kill a bitch every now n’ then?
From his first impression, Bogue walks as if the earth itself were his birth right. There’s intrigue to the idea that the sneering hordes of antiquity have been replaced by a solitary demagogue but alas, it goes limp quickly. Bogue wastes no time getting the action started by slaughtering a swath of dusty-faced locals unwilling to sell their land at pennies on the dollar. Sarsgaard’s liver-spotted performance is lippy. And angry. And hollowish. Shaded with political relevancy but not really doing much with it. Not so much a critique as a “type”. Something that defines much of the films characters and something we will circle back around to later.
Inciting the violence is a parishioner (Magic Mike’s intimidatingly handsome Matt Bomer) who finds himself on the wrong end of a pistol after calling out the rapacious baron. Soon a bullet appears where his heart should be. For those who’ve not seen the poster (or trailer), it’s a smooth misdirect: killing off the most handsome man in the scene. Whodathunk? But alas, this is the day of pre-release material orgies and marketing bukakke. We know he’s never going to make it out alive. Without wasting a beat, his unexpectedly adept wife Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) races off to employ the titular seven and save the day. She too will become an unexpected protector, taking up arms against those who seek to oppress her and her flock, and in doing so gives The Magnificent Seven its first of many “minorities”* to come.
(*Yes, I’m aware that calling a woman a minority is insane. But this is an action movie folks. She is a “minority”.)
In an almost accidental point of contract to Quentin Tarantino’s far superior Django Unchained, our introduction to Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) sees him saunter into some Old West shanty town – none of which feel nearly as vivid or lived-in as those in just about any Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. He mows down a known business proprietor at his own saloon then spurs the flabbergasted locals to git and bring back the lawmen. With a town-full of rifles squared at his frame, Chisolm produces a handbill from his coat pocket to prove the man he just killed what indeed a wanted criminal. The scene feels so plagiarized, it’s a wonder Denzel didn’t the thing in an over-enunciated German accent.
As with most issues in the film, you can blame bad writing. Screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto’s transition out of the first season of True Detective has been rocky at best and downright embarrassing at worst and his work here – admittedly credit is shared with a not-so-desirable partner in Richard Wenk (The Expendables 2) – serves as further proof that his initial breakout might have been but a flash in the pan. Pizzolatto and Wenk try to forklift in a multicultural angle that evaded both originals – the uber white-washed Japanese and American versions – but end up shoaling theoretically positive efforts at inclusion in sloppy, off-centered character development.
Joining the band of all Americans – including Vincent D’Onofrio’s soft-spoken grizzly man Jack Horne and Ethan Hawke’s haunted war legend Goodnight Robicheaux – are an Asian! (Byung-hun Lee) A Mexican! (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and even a Native American! (Martin Sensmeier). While those of the less pigmented persuasion – Washington not included – are privy to defining character traits like being regretful, humble, pompous or vengeful, the non-White characters are mostly reduced to types. As in – you guessed it! – stereotypes. Sensmeier’s Comanche warrior Red Harvest and Lee’s blazin’-fast-shooting Billy Rocks particularly are little more than the color of their skin and the skill set they possess in battle: a flurry of red arrows and a swizzle of yellow blades.
There’s not much evidence of urgency or poignancy in Fuqua’s retelling of this classic nor do the multicultural updates translate as well as they should in 2016. When the movie pivots from the recruiting stages (where it should have really spread out and had room to breathe) to the bullet-blitzkrieg shoot-em-up (which it could have trimmed down easily), the affair becomes humdrum and slick, and one may find themselves day dreaming of Kurosawa’s streamlined but thoughtful three-and-a-half-hour epic instead.
Working to Fuqua’s advantage: a high-caliber cast who dial up the swagger to account up for deficits in thematic nuance and character richness. Chris Pratt plays another scoundrel – this time of the heavy-drinking, cigar-chewing, card-shark variety – and his showy bombast is as immensely watchable as Denzel somberly reflecting in his quiet moments. Things are taken to their nature conclusion but not much is learned along the way. The fact remains: no character – regardless of their skin shade – really gets to dig deep and have their moment in the sun, proving the straw that ultimately breaks The Magnificent Sevens already overloaded back is its strange unwillingness to actually make its seven truly magnificent.
CONCLUSION: There’s nothing on the screen to suggest that this remake of ‘The Magnificent Seven’ actually needed making but for what is is – a lightweight family-friendly adventure movie with a tremendously likable cast – it’s mostly watchable popcorn fodder, if a bit draggy and overly action-oriented.