The Magnificent Seven
Release Date: September 23, 2016
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, and Peter Sarsgaard
Japanese director and film legend Akira Kurosawa clearly got something right when he released Seven Samurai back in 1954. The Magnificent Seven is a remake of a remake of a film that has been referenced and reused countless times before. Directors and writers have been emulating its narrative on the big and small screens for years, and audiences seen to love it. And why shouldn't they? There's something satisfying about watching heroes, morally ambiguous or otherwise, band together to protect innocents from evil. Superhero movies have been doing that for awhile now. Despite the film's Japanese origins, the story has a very American flavor to it: powerful individuals who make their own way in the world finally coming together for no other reason than bravery and altruism, traits that Americans in general admire and emulate. That's probably why this story worked so well as a western in the 1960's The Magnificent Seven, why it worked so well as a Pixar film about bugs, and why it works well in countless other films and TV shows.
This remake is far from necessary, but it's not wholly unwelcome. The film has already shot to number one at the box office, and when I went to see it on a Sunday afternoon the theaters were packed. There hasn't been a lot of westerns lately, but it's clear the genre is not dead yet. In The Magnificent Seven, the small mining town of Rose Creek is being strong-armed into selling their land by industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (no Mexican bandits led by Eli Wallach this time). His thugs burn the church and kill some townsfolk as a show of force, including the husband of Emma Cullen (played by Haley Bennett). Cullen and a friend visit the nearest town to recruit help and meet with bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington). Chisolm agrees to assist, and the rest of the film has them collecting their merry band of outlaws, rogues, veterans, and whatever the hell Vincent D'Onofrio's character is supposed to be in order to prepare for a final showdown with Bogue and his men.
The movie's two biggest strengths are its characters and cinematography. The casting choices are excellent, even if a character seems a little out of place for the setting. Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Vincent D'Onofrio look like they fit snugly into the romanticized dirty-yet-handsome esthetic of western movies. Pratt would make an excellent John Marston if they ever did a film version of Red Dead Redemption. Peter Sarsgaard plays the cruel and smarmy villain, but it's a two-dimensional performance: Bo Bogue isn't meant to be complex, he's meant to represent a force for the heroes to fight against. Lee Byung-hun's character fits in well story-wise, but his crazy kung fu knife skills seem a little out of place. Martin Sensmeier's Comanche Red Harvest is a welcome addition (even though he just kind of shows up), and Denzel Washington does a great job as always playing the skilled badass who might have other, secret motives behind his agreement to assist the townsfolk. Even though Washington gets the highest billing and the lead role in the ensemble, it's Chris Pratt who the movie lives and dies by. Not to say that the other actors don't deliver: their interactions, jokes, and dialogue take the movie from just passable to entertaining, and their skills as gun fighters compliment each other in some fantastic shoot outs on screen. They do a great job of making the seven incredibly likable, and the actors themselves are clearly enjoying their roles.
The movie's cinematography should also be commended. It's a beautifully shot film, with sweeping vistas of mountain ranges and eye-opening plains, all bright and clean and pleasing to watch even as the dirt is kicked up from gunshots and dynamite. It's a world of sweat and grime and we see it all in fantastic definition. Unfortunately it's not always perfect. The very last scene of the film overlooking some gravestones looks very unnatural: are we looking at CGI for something that didn't require any?
The movie starts to fall apart when it comes to the actual character storylines and motivations, in that there doesn't seem to be any. Sure they have a singular goal in saving the town, but there are not a lot of compelling reasons for a these seven characters to come together and stay together under Chisolm's command. Most of them certainly don't want to, and those that strike deals with Chisolm or are in it for the money show very little reason to stay other then the audience's hope that they do. There are some meager attempts at fleshing out the characters' backstories and motivations that sometimes works like with Chisolm and Hawke's Goodnight Robicheaux, but falls flat or appears nonexistent with others like D'Onofrio's Jack Horne, or Red Harvest.
This movie was not made in a vacuum, and The Magnificent Seven is clearly a product of its times. The fact that the villain is a seedy capitalist (who at one point invokes the names of other historical industrialists of the time) instead of some random brigand speaks to the growing resentment our modern world has for the economic elite and Wall Street types that helped ruin our economy. They're an easy target. There's also no way to ignore the fact that the seven are a group of cherry-picked minority groups. Naturally it doesn't change the quality of the film, but the movie doesn't ignore this decision either. One scene lampshades their situation as they're making their way back to Rose Creek in a humorous scene that almost says "Yes, we know what we did here, let's all acknowledge it and drop it." It's difficult to say whether it's advancement in Hollywood representation or pandering, but I wouldn't want to use this film as an example of either.
Overall I really enjoyed the movie. It delivered on its premise: a fun cowboy adventure that may not be groundbreaking, but certainly gives the audience what it wants. As a remake it's serviceable, but the film is ultimately shallow and forgettable. If you have even a passing interest in seeing a solid modern western film, I recommend checking out The Magnificent Seven.