Film Review: The Magnificent Seven

Director: Antoine Fuqua

12A | 2h 12min | Action, Western | 23 September 2016 (UK)

RATING: ★★★☆☆

Antoine Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven re-teams the Training Day director with his favourite kick-ass leading man, Denzel Washington, in a remake of the original, and very rousing, John Sturges 1960 Western. Sturges’ renowned ‘last stand of a few good men’ flick was, of course, itself a remake of the Akira Kurosawa film Seven Samurai. But this is Hollywood, so it is unlikely Fuqua could ever have got the green light to remake the ‘genuine article’, had he wanted to. Sturges’ film boasted the likes of Charles Bronson, Yul Brynner and James Coburn in its line-up, a veritable who’s who of Hollywood golden era badassery. With Washington centre stage as the leader of a band of hired gunslingers defending a helpless American frontier town in the 1870s, decked out entirely in black and teamed with the charisma machine known as Chris Pratt plus five others, Fuqua arguably has enough primary ‘leading man’ ingredients so as to not feel totally overshadowed by the epic casting of the 1960s version. He delivers an entertaining – but not very distinctive – result with all this manpower, however .

It is common with remakes that a certain amount of ‘reimagining’ is both promised and expected; a bit of contemporary polish added for modern audiences with certain out of date elements sandpapered away. In reality, Fuqua doesn’t deviate too much from the 1960 film, and oddly doesn’t push to the foreground the more unique elements of his own take. The setting is certainly a familiar one: the dirt-poor and dismayed American frontier town of Rose Krick, which is under the boot heel of the ruthless, capitalist villain Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Saarsgard, sleepwalking villainy). He is the kind of guy who doesn’t just do his murdering during a church meeting, he has his men shoot people outside the church and then burn it down. What Bogue wants is unfettered access to the nearby gold mine, and to buy up all the resident’s land at rock bottom prices, the kind of prices you get when the residents are terrified of your hired army.

In their desperation the residents – driven by the determined Emma Cullen (Hayley Bennett, this version’s small concession to the need for a greater gender balance in action roles) – gather up the small amount of wealth they have and hire a misfit group of gun-slingers to help them fight back. These include bounty hunter and general man of mystery Sam Chisholm (Washington), Josh Farraday (Pratt, who’s character’s key skill beyond gambling isn’t really made clear, but he shoots pretty well and makes wisecracks), burdened sharpshooter and Civil War veteran Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke, delivering most of the comedy here along with Pratt) and his Korean sidekick Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee). Also hired are the oddly-accented tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), Vasquez the outlaw (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and a Native American Indian called Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), who just turns up one day and decides to stick around for reasons never made clear.

There is some fun to be had watching the Seven devise their plan to unleash seven barrels of mayhem on Bogue’s men, although the resulting action – which includes dynamite booby traps and even an early proto-minigun mounted on a wagon – isn’t remotely realistic or particularly novel. Despite a sheen of grittiness on the proceedings, this is the kind of film where each of the Seven is perfectly capable of killing at least 30 men each, and shots taken from the hip or aimed at a moving target at over 50 yards always hit. You could very well think, coming away from watching this film, that 1800s-era pistols and rifles were far more accurate than today’s weapons, with the added bonus of no jamming risks. Washington and Pratt understandably get most of the quips and awesome stuff to do on screen, and there is something to be said for way Fuqua shamelessly celebrates the sheer coolness of Washington with his camera lens. Washington is frequently framed from a low angle against the sun’s rays, or seen in bold silhouette against the twilight. Naturally, his full reveal is held back from us when he first appears on camera, the first close up of him is of his gun belt – seen just before he walks into a saloon and starts blasting after being eyed up suspiciously by trigger happy locals. By the way, if you want Western cliches like those in that previous sentence; this film packs every one of them in, in just the first 10 minutes.

But the screenplay oddly doesn’t make anything of the fact that Washington is a black man walking around at the head of a posse just after the end of slavery – literally no character in the film comments on this provocative notion. But then no one has anything to say about the fact that this gang includes the unlikely presence of a Mexican, Indian and a Korean either. Nevertheless, the surprising ethnic diversity of the Seven could maybe be seen as kind of admirable, quiet rebuke to Trump’s vision of a pure America. It is just a shame that despite this ‘modern’ spin on a familiar tale, the film overall feels like it got stuck in between two stools. Fuqua’s take is not deep thematically or grittily realistic enough to qualify as a ‘psychological western’, given we learn little about what motivates these men and with some of them joining Chisholm’s outfit for the most obscure reasons (though to be fair, the Sturges film is hardly deep in this regard either). But neither is the action and humour sharp enough to make it work as a pure, shameless crowd pleaser either, and Fuqua also spurned the chance to take things to a more excessive level, turning this into a pure B-movie guilty pleasure. More like the ‘Moderately entertaining Seven’ than Magnificent, ultimately.

Film Review: The Magnificent Seven
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