by Philip Price
“The Magnificent Seven,” the re-make of the 1960 John Sturges film starring Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, from director Antoine Fuqua accomplishes exactly what it intends to. This is pure popcorn entertainment meant to capitalize on the combination of brand awareness and the popularity of the actors it has on its roster. That said, it takes full advantage of those aspects while delivering a wholly satisfying blockbuster Western. It is difficult even, to take away from what is being accomplished within this pure Hollywood product as its only ambition is clearly to deliver something of an updated mythos on the story of seven exceptionally skilled sharpshooters and little more. Given the Sturges film itself was a re-make of director Akira Kurosawa's 1954 film, “Seven Samurai,” that supplanted the story of a poor village under attack by bandits who recruited seven samurai warriors to help defend their village with an oppressed Mexican village that assembles seven gunfighters to help defend their homes from outlaws relays the idea this particular story is one that can easily be adapted for new ages, new circumstances, and with new relevance. And so, why re-make “The Magnificent Seven” once again? It seems as though Fuqua, while not having a complete answer, mostly intends to use MGM's idea to raid their classics catalog by allowing him to lend more context to and highlight more of the race relations that were taking place in the late 19th century than might have been approved of in 1960. In light of such a re-framing of history as people see it through pop culture (which is never a good place to rely on for your history, not in 1960 and not now) Fuqua has cast frequent collaborator Denzel Washington in the lead role or the equivalent of what Brynner played in the original. Filling out the titular seven we also have a Mexican in Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Ruflo), a Korean in Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), and a Native American in Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) with the remainder of the crew filling out the tall white man quota with the likes of Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke and Vincent D'Onforio. Whether Fuqua's version of these events takes advantage of such changes and actually pulls insight or interesting dynamics from these updates is another thing as the 2016 “The Magnificent Seven” doesn't stand to get too weighty or theoretical, but instead it simply puts these ideas out there for audiences to recognize while at the same time making these characters so bluntly badass that boxes such as ethnicity hardly seem to matter. Whether this works in favor or against the reasoning for this movie to exist is a conversation to be had, but as far as I'm concerned Fuqua's film is so relentlessly entertaining and such a fun experience there need be no greater reason for its existence.
This is a story of men going to battle. This is a story you've seen before. And Westerns, for the most part, are basic set-ups with character development and action left to fill in the gaps where other movies might find more substance in the narrative. “The Magnificent Seven” makes up for it sometimes lacking character development by having a large cast of characters for us to get to know, focusing in on two or three, with the rest more or less having a single identifier by which we are assisted in remembering who is who. As for the set-up, like previously mentioned, it is a simple one. In this version of the story a town is under siege by an evil bad guy (an insanely sweaty Peter Sarsgaard) who runs a mining company that is essentially robbing this poor village of all they have. Mining their land for gold and offering the landowners a certain price for them to leave without plans of negotiation give the villagers no choice but to either be forced to move again from all they've built and put in honest work to obtain or to fight back against Sarsgaard's ruthless Bartholomew Bogue who shoots those who dare to oppose his propositions on sight. After a chilling initial shootout that leaves the town more distraught then before two of its residents take up the task of finding a way to defend their home. Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) and Teddy Q (Luke Grimes) head out to find a few good lawmen that might come together to help them defend their village from Bogue and his thieves. In light of this we are introduced to Washington's Sam Chisolm, a warrant officer who is on a mission to capture a bounty that allows his skills to be put on display for Emma and Teddy while at the same time sparking a slight affinity between Chisolm and Pratt's Josh Faraday. Scripted by “True Detective” showrunner Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk (“The Equalizer”) the film spends a fair amount of time in the establishing of and rounding up of the key characters before segueing into the main conflict that sees our titular seven coming in, intimidating, and then planning and preparing for the inevitable return of Bogue and his army. Only lagging in the second act as it attempts to find a transition from the expositional section of its script to that of the action Pizzolatto and Wenk offer a straightforward and linear presentation of events peppered with interesting and compelling enough characters that are only made more so by what the actors portraying them bring to the screen.
The glue holding all of this together is of course Washington who, at 61, can turn on his gravitas with ease. There is an early scene in which Washington's Chisolm rides into a predominantly white town where he immediately draws stares. Beyond this one telling sequence Fuqua doesn't harp too much on the color of his main character’s skin, but the script does allow for it to play into the overriding justification that pushes Chisolm to involve himself in the situation in the first place which, unfortunately, somewhat takes away from the character Washington builds throughout the film. It makes sense, the symmetry the screenwriters are attempting to craft in creating this understanding between our hero and our catalyst in Emma, but it mostly feels unnecessary in that we would have bought into Chisolm's choices and motivations were they nothing more than he believed he was doing the right thing. Outside of his arc, Washington is still as charismatic as ever and can pull in a viewer solely with his gazes and smirks. Here, the actor doesn't so much play Chisolm with an edge of cockiness, but more a confident and quiet assuredness that resonates throughout the rest of the group. Pairing Washington with the ever charismatic Pratt was an inspired choice and Pratt very much takes the role of the comic relief and runs with it while sporting an equally fierce facade that could, in some instances, be interpreted as flat out mean. Though Pratt is more or less playing Chris Pratt he does so in an effective manner that helps more than it hinders the overall tone and companionship of the group that becomes necessary for audiences to buy that these seven strangers can so quickly form a coherent and lethal organism. While Washington and Pratt are given the most screen time Hawke's character, Goodnight Robicheaux (a great name from the original I'm glad they kept here), surprisingly has the most interesting journey as he is the most conflicted. A former Confederate soldier who has seen more death than he cares to remember and has thus become something of a haunted individual because of it. Given that Robicheaux is the only other character Chisolm has a history with as well there is an inherently deeper connection to know more about what is going on inside the characters head as Hawke pairs Robicheaux's arc with one his always insightful performances.
If we're to discuss the range of performances in this film though, what D'Onforio brings is so out of left field and so strangely appealing that it ends up working despite one's first instinct to laugh off whatever high-pitched voice it is that the actor is attempting. D'Onforio has always been one to be something of a paradox by playing subtlety in big ways and he doesn't disappoint in that regard here as his Jack Horne, a bounty hunter and mountain man, is both a killer and a man who leans heavily on the guidance of the Lord to show him what path he needs to travel. There is no denying that D'Onforio's performance is over the top to the point it might even be distracting (and don't worry if you can't understand everything he says), but as the group melds together and as this camaraderie begins to genuinely form without needing the nudge from Chisolm it did-it is the character of Horne that we come to appreciate more fully and his quips we come to enjoy all the more any time his presence graces the screen. As for the remainder of the seven it is somewhat undermining that the three men of other nationalities or ethnicity's are the least developed characters, but the fact Fuqua worked to incorporate a diverse cast at all in this genre is saying something. As Vasquez Garcia-Rulfo is able to develop his persona as the flashiest gunfighter on the team only a little more than Lee and Sensmeier due only to the fact the other two are limited in their English dialogue. And though these characters are given less backstory and less to do in the grander scheme of things the script makes a choice on their behalf that at least stands to comment on where these individuals stand in terms of respect among their peers noting a sense of equality and even superiority in skill over any natural and therefore unavoidable factors that might have contributed to their appearance or set of beliefs that would thus cause them to be discriminated against. That also said, Lee and Sensmeier's Rocks and Red Harvest prove to be the most intimidating and deadly of the ensemble leaving their lack of dialogue to be made up for in the large action set-pieces where they display their worth in spades. It is worth mentioning also that, despite Bennett feeling like the flavor of the week who was cast in everything coming out this fall, she portrays a strong and capable woman in a wholly believable fashion here through a performance that stands up against each of the ones given by these aforementioned men.
And while the actor's certainly bring much to the film that it seems might not have been there on the page what is truly most impressive about this new version of “The Magnificent Seven” is simply how it is able to update the pacing of a genre that typically prides itself on the slower, more methodical approach while still retaining the inherent soul of the western genre. Fuqua puts much on display to pay homage to the films that reigned supreme in Hollywood for nearly three decades and it is also somewhat symbolic that the 1960 version of this story was something of the last of a dying breed in its assembly line "shoot 'em up" style that it was originally presented in that makes it the perfect kind of surrogate for which to bring that long dormant genre into the modern era of Hollywood. Of course, the fact it spawned three sequels and a hit television series doesn't hurt either. Now considered a modern classic that Sturges picture is glimpsed in Fuqua's film through the visual aesthetic and accompanying score that references, but doesn't explicitly take advantage of the iconic original score until the closing credits. Fuqua has always had a penchant for gritty and brutal films and in applying that to the old west what the director has crafted is a violent, sometimes shockingly violent, film that puts the right men in their places without getting too into its own head or visceral about what picture it's painting. In essence, “The Magnificent Seven” is a movie that implies and states a number of things that could be considered both presently timely and significant for the period in which the film takes place without openly discussing them. It is a movie that lets the facts of the situation speak for themselves and in many ways this works to the films advantage. Look, this isn't high-grade Oscar bait, but its solid fun with a through the roof entertainment factor and given those clear intentions it has from the beginning one is hard pressed to ask for more than that.