There has been a lot of critical griping in recent years about Hollywood’s insistence upon remaking and relaunching old franchises and titles. While a remake of Jon Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960), which is, itself, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), and likely the most well-loved remake ever made, is subject to the same kind of criticism, but the premise of The Magnificent Seven and Seven Samurai is so broad (seven highly-skilled warriors come together to save a defenseless village from the forces of a powerful bully) that a remake barely qualifies as such. A filmmaker needn’t feel hemmed in by the world and iconography of the original work. There is plenty of room for inspiration and originality in updating The Magnificent Seven and so it is disappointing that there is little of either in director Antoine Fuqua’s new version of the classic. The movie is loaded with a very promising cast; Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-Hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Martin Sensmeier are the titular seven. Peter Sarsgaard is the villainous robber baron; but that promise goes largely undelivered upon. Fuqua, ever the journeyman director, his images well-framed, his action fluid and coherent, creates a western world that recalls the classics of the genre without commenting on them in any meaningful way, and creates characters who are too “cool” to be engaging.
With The Magnificent Seven, Fuqua attempts to make a film that is simultaneously more gritty and more action-packed, delirious fun than its forebears, and he comes away with a movie that is not particularly gritty or fun. There are a surprising number of stabbings here for a PG-13 movie, but mostly are the fun kind where the knife-wielder (Byung-Hun Lee) twirls around a lot. The film features an admirably diverse central cast but attempts to split the difference between color-blind Western fantasy and the racial realities of the American Frontier, resulting in a version of The West in which the townspeople will never comment on the various races of their collected saviors but the heroes will casually make racial jokes each other’s expense without any comeuppance, and the film’s two Native American characters, the “good one” and the “bad one” end their duel with an accusation that is troublesome at best. The movie is overly concerned with being “cool,” both in its action sequences, which are well-choreographed and feature many of the movies most classic stunts (horses falling, tumbles from balconies, men thrown through windows, a guy on fire) but is nothing special. Same with in the “cool guys, hangin’ out, busting balls” attitude of its cast.
The most successful of the ensemble’s performances is Denzel Washington’s; As Chisholm, the band’s leader, he stays out of the more highjinx-oriented goings on. Washington brings all of his natural cool to bear and looks fantastic in an all-black getup that simultaneously recalls the heroes of 50’s Westerns and 70’s Blaxploitation cinema. Far less successful is Chris Pratt. The Pratt 2.0 persona, that is the cocky, flirty man of action, worked like gangbusters in Guardians of The Galaxy (2014) where his character’s attitude was an affectation to be undercut and deflated by his lack of competence and the superior competence of the characters around him. Here, as was the case in Jurassic World (2015), Pratt’s character, the roguish gambler, Faraday, can walk the walk, and the swaggering persona is absolutely insufferable. Andy Dwyer is dead. A similarly disappointing performance is that of Peter Sarsgaard, who, as Bartholomew Bogue, the big bad wolf, seems like he wants to go way over the top but he remains unnecessarily reserved; there is plenty of scenery to chew, Fuqua should have urged Sarsgaard to make a meal of it.
The entire affair is generally uninspired, but it is not without bright spots. It is refreshing that Fuqua and writers Nic Pizzolatto (a long way from True Detective) and Richard Wenk, allow The Magnificent Seven’s townspeople, led by a vengeful widow (Haley Bennett, doing fine work in a pretty rote role) to fight alongside the titular heroes, affecting their own salvation, rather than adopting the Ayn Randian “Only the special ones can do anything worthwhile” attitude common to this kind of movie. Unfortunately, while the film forgoes that cliche, it hits a great many others: There is the requisite (and, admittedly, necessary) assembling of the team, the training sequence, the villain’s dispatching of an incompetent henchman, the selfish character who becomes self-sacrificing; a character abandons the group, fearing he has not fight left in him only to heroically return at the 11th hour. Sorry if that was a spoiler, but if you are not able to predict that turn of events you have never seen a movie before. You could do better than The Magnificent Seven for your first.
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writer: Nic Pizzolatto, Richard Wenk
Cinematographer: Mauro Fiore
Editor: John Refoua
Starring: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard