The Magnificent Seven
In amongst the plethora of remakes and reboots, this must be something a bit unique, in that it is both a remake and a reboot at the same time: a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s iconic Seven Samurai and a reboot of the 1960’s The Magnificent Seven, iconic enough in its turn. John Sturges’ version is a film I am intimately familiar with thanks largely to my father, who adores it in the same way I adore The Lord Of The Rings or Serenity. I’ve watched it many’s the time, and the nostalgia runs strong in me. So, suffice to say that my interest was piqued with news of a new version, several decades after the last of the terrible Seven sequels was released. Not a bad cast, and not a bad director in Training Day’s Antoine Fuqua. And this is The Magnificent Seven: a genuinely difficult thing to mess up, the kind of archetypical story that thousands upon thousands of variations have attempted to copy. So, did it succeed, or was it just another facsimile?
When the ruthless robber baron Bart Bogue (Peter Sarsgard) tries to terrorise a small western town into surrendering itself into his hands, it’s people desperately seek help: they find it in the form of grizzled bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) who agrees to assemble a small team to defend the town. It’s a varied bunch: an unhinged gunslinger (Chris Pratt), a mentally scarred sharpshooter (Ethan Hawke), a knife fighter from the east (Bying-hun Lee), a Mexican outlaw (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a wild mountain man (Vincent D’Onofrio) and a roaming Native American (Martin Sensmeier). Together, the seven face into the fight of their lives.
I’ve said before that I generally lack the antipathy that is often directed at reboots and remakes, but even I find my resolve broken on occasion. I gave The Magnificent Seven a fair shot. More than a fair shot. I really wanted to like this movie, because I love the source material and I like the genre. I wanted this to be something akin to last years Slow West as a modern attempt at an old classic. But Fuqua’s effort at bringing some life to this old franchise is a crushing disappointment: a film that both fails on its own merits, and falls so far from the main point of Sturges/Kurosawa’s films that it basically lacks a higher point of its own.
Right from the off, things are iffy, as we are introduced to Rose Creek and its desperate residents – the mixed ethnicity of the seven appears to have been balanced out by dropping the Mexican victims of 1960 – who are caught under the heel of the villainous Bogue, a bad guy so over the top and comically unimpressive, that it’s almost a blessing in disguise that he basically vanishes from the movie for the entire first and second acts. Bogue is one-dimensional toan obvious fault, gleefully terrorising the villagers for monetary reward, and happily killing left, right and centre on a total whim. Calvera he is not: Sturges made an effort to make his villain a small bit sympathetic – he’s robbing the village to feed his own starving men – but Fuqua is so focused on his titular team that the villain is an utter nobody.
But this is The Magnificent Seven, and we want to see a varied team of outsiders come together, so let’s talk about the seven. Denzel Washington I haven’t seen much of lately, though he’s always been an actor I’ve admired: here, he’s serviceable and little more, attempting to be Eli Wallach and just about pulling it off: the same calm demeanour, the same inner hardness that comes out at crucial moments, without ever letting genuine emotion slip. His character patters along as the leader but is mostly just propelled with a series of “badass” moments, and the bare semblance of a deeper plot, a revenge quest that is unfortunately tied to the anatagonist so much that it’s basically dropped for a huge section of the movie.
Stepping into the Steve McQueen role is Chris Pratt, now firmly established as the go-to Hollywood heartthrob action star. But his Faraday is a really bizarre character, who seems to slip into murderous rages in rapid turns, busting out magic tricks to distract goons before he shoots, something that brought thoughts of Heath Ledger’s Joker to mind more than McQueen-esque heroics. It’s so hard to get a read on Faraday that he becomes just another frustrating enigma, a person you can’t decide whether you like or dislike. Pratt too isn’t trying all that hard either, seemingly sleepwalking until he can bust out the charm properly for Guardians Of The Galaxy, Volume Two. Faraday is also at the heart of The Magnificent Seven‘s awkward, weird humour, the kind of thing that stops the momentum of a scene dead.
The third leg of the very rickety plot table is Ethan Hawke’s Goodknight, the former Confederate sharpshooter undergoing a PTSD angle so hackneyed it’s extremely difficult to take it seriously. If he has one of the original seven to base himself on it’s Harry Luck, but Harry Luck was fun: Goodknight is just another dour, unimaginative character, that someone as genuinely talented as Hawke can’t do much with.
The other four are various types of one-note. Lee, in the knifefighter role, is essentially Hawke’s sidekick who throws blades in lieu of being a character. Vincent D’Onofrio is alright as the somewhat mentally ill frontiersmen, but again he’s little beyond his initial appearance. Garcia Rulfo as the Mexican outlaw is a Mexican outlaw. And Sensmeier pops up as the Native American with the bow and arrow – thanks Katniss – who seems less an effort to include that ethnicity and more an effort to counteract the evil Indian in Bogue’s employ (because of course there is). Why not have a woman in there somewhere? When it comes to the female sex, The Magnificent Seven just has Haley Bennett as the towns’ resident beauty/secretly great with a gun, who has a revenge plot more or less copied from Sam.
There is a certain camaraderie evident in some scenes, but the script of Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk can’t get the job done enough in that respect. Things like The Avengers, Guardians Of The Galaxy and the Furious franchise have all led efforts to have this kind of seven+ squad of differing personalities that bounce off each other in a funny and occasionally interesting way, and numerous other films have attempted to do the same thing recently, and have failed. The Magnificent Seven is one of those, too obsessed with it’s “cool” moments and letting the seven act as individuals rather than as a team. The script falls down badly at other moments, especially when it simply apes the Sturges version: iconic lines like “If God didn’t want them sheared, he wouldn’t have made them sheep” or the “So far, so good” joke get dropped in without the slightest care for how it cheapens the modern versions efforts to stand apart. You can respect what you are coming from without lifting it completely.
With that mind, the main sin of The Magnificent Seven 2016 is probably that it’s as brainless an action movie as I have seen recently, one where the good guys don’t ever seem to miss a shot – the death toll by the time the credits roll is genuinely jaw dropping – suffer some losses and then ride off into the proverbial sunset. But where both Kurosawa and Sturges’ effectively and engagingly made the point that the gunfighters lost the battle as much of the villain, despite their apparent victory, Fuqua just can’t even make a facsimile of the same idea. It’s such a heartbreaking concept, that it is the farmers, with the ability to make a home, a life and a legacy for themselves, that have it better than the adventure having cowboys, who have the short-term thrills but simply drift away afterwards. It’s one of the main reasons that I think Sturges’ film is as good as it is, because it masquerades as an action heavy western while containing that core depth. Fuqua’s, in comparison, has its body count (something it’s copying from the original when it really shouldn’t), has its empty characters and has a limp ending with a nothing villain getting his comeuppance.
The production of The Magnificent Seven can’t save it either. The usual panoramics of the wild west abound, that you’ll have seen and digested in a dozen other films. The action scenes are shot with competence and little more, the only variety a laughable section with a perfectly working Gatling gun. And James Horner’s score would be a forgettable accompaniment for any other film, but which stands out in its mundanity here because you can’t help but compare to Elmer Bernstein’s wonderful achievement half a century ago. As many else have noted, it’s really only when the original theme kicks in at the end – right after the film shoehorns in the word “magnificent” into the script in a truly painful moment – that you might even take the slightest bit of notice of the musical side of things.
So, The Magnificent Seven is part and parcel of a period when Ben-Hur or Point Break, and maybe even Ghostbusters in a certain way, are showing that the reboot game isn’t going according to plan. Not critically, and no longer financially, not in the way it was even a few years ago. It is another film where Hollywood has looked to the past for inspiration, and come up with a dud that is both uninteresting in its own right and in no way a fit continuation of a franchise that started so brightly, in Japan and in the United States. The story is sub-par, the acting is so-so, the general production is nothing to write home about. Even the sequels to Sturges’ film deserve more attention than this. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer and Columbia Pictures).