Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Written by Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk
Starring: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, and Peter Sarsgaard
Runtime: 133 minutes
There is a complaint about modern Hollywood that there is no new material being explored, just a recycling of old material. Antoine Fuqua’s latest film, The Magnificent Seven would fall under that complaint, since it is a remake of a remake. The 1960 film of the same name was an American remake of Akira Kurosawa’s landmark 1954 picture The Seven Samurai, which is one of his many masterpieces. The 1960 version, written and directed by John Sturges, became a classic in its own right and the story has been told in countless forms, notably as Pixar’s A Bug’s Life and an episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Remaking stories for a new audience isn’t inherently bad. If it weren’t for remakes and reinterpretations, no one outside of Elizabethan London would have ever seen a Shakespeare play performed.
Fuqua and his writers Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk make this 1879-set story of a group of gunfighters led by Denzel Washington playing Sam Chisolm (not the name of the lead in either version but more likely a nod to the John Wayne character from Chisolm) hired to rid a small farming town in California of a robber baron (Bartholomew Bogue, played by Peter Sarsgaard) contemporary by including that unsafe mining practices are poisoning the water and that this man (who represents modern corporations) is doing everything relatively legally (except the murder and property damage, but he’s paid off the local sheriff, so nothing is done to stop him).
At the behest of Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), Chisolm, who is a sworn warrant officer and peace officer in the mid-western territories (sort of a legal bounty hunter), takes the job to drive Bogue out of the town and sets about recruiting hardened gunslingers to the cause. A chance encounter leads him to Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt) and Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), a Native American who has been cast out of his tribe, while others he recruits like his old friend Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his business partner Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee) as well as Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a criminal that Chisolm says he won’t arrest if he joins up and Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), a man who once made a living hunting down and scalping Native Americans but since the Government stopped collecting bounties on scalps, he’s just kind of wandered.
To this end, Fuqua is also updating the story for modern times because the cast is ethnically diverse (and an actual Native American was hired to play a Native American! Go figure!). At first, this could be dismissed as a stunt to just appear more diverse, but each of the cultures are well represented in the characters.
The writers went a long way to fill in some of the backstories of the characters and round them out, more so than in previous versions. They also make the fight more personal for some of the Seven, Chisolm included. While this is a more contemporary approach to screenwriting, it buries the resonance of the original story, which is people who are generally not good doing something selfless (because they aren’t getting paid much for this job). In fact, by giving Chisolm a personal connection to Bogue, it makes his character selfish and willing to put good people’s lives on the line for his revenge (something Goodnight makes a point of discussing with Chisolm more than once). This makes Chisolm less noble than he ought to be and undermines what should be the main thrust of the narrative.
Fuqua does his part to undermine some of the thrust of the film too. While the action sequences are excellently filmed, without quick cuts and frame removals, making the action easy to follow and make sense, much of the rest of the picture feels like Fuqua found a highlights reel titled Greatest Movie Western Clichés and he took notes and make sure he included all of them in The Magnificent Seven. There are long pushes into Washington’s face, shots with the principle actors lined up and shot from an angle so we can see all of them, and even some soundless mourning. To his credit, though, the topography of the town is well established and you always know where you are during a sequence and he holds onto some scenes to build tension and emotion. Deaths are felt because of the time he lets us spend with the characters throughout the film.
On the cast side, everyone pulls their weight. Washington is a little too cold but otherwise engaging, Pratt spins his usual brand of loveable, Hawke feels like he’s on something of a resurgence here, coming off his fantastic performance in Boyhood and the relative unknowns, Lee, Sensmeir and Bennett hold their own against some formidable talent. Sarsgaard is good, but as soon as he walks onscreen you know he’s the villain and he plays that up to almost absurd levels. The real standout is D’Onofrio. His character is lovable, menacing, funny and sad and he plays them all sometimes within breaths of each other. He’s seldom given a character that lets him breathe and Jack Horne does that and more.
Even with all its troubles, The Magnificent Seven never fails to entertain. The story is so stalwart that it seems like any iteration is bound to be at least fun. Fuqua may never touch the heights of the 1960 film or get anywhere close to splendor of The Seven Samurai, but as far as pointless remakes go, it’s pretty good.