The Magnificent Seven (2016, Dir. Antoine Fuqua):
Fourteen minutes into the remake of The Magnificent Seven, Denzel Washington saunters into a bar. He’s a cowboy dressed all in black, like Yul Brynner in the original Magnificent Seven (1960), but in his sheer menace, he more resembles another man in black, the unredeemed scoundrel Frank (Henry Fonda) from the Sergio Leone classic Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). All around the bar, patrons lift their heads to behold this intruder, open in their racial hostility, and for a few brief moments, the movie suggests that it will have a point: Why not reexamine a tried-and-true classic with a revisionist lens? Why not reconstruct the Western myth with a multicultural cast that features an African-American in the lead, as well as a Korean, a Mexican, and a Native American, and watch the fur fly?
Unfortunately, nothing about the rest of this remake is so daring or ballsy. Of course, the original Magnificent Seven was a remake, as well; one has to go back to Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1956) to find the movie that started it all, and even that was inspired by Kurosawa’s love of John Ford westerns. But Kurosawa’s film, and John Sturges’ old west reimagining, had very definite ideas of what they were all about. The Seven Samurai, besides being a ground-breaking action film, was all about the moral imperative, and essential futility, of heroism. Though the titular samurai choose to defend a poor farming village from marauders for a variety of reasons, including altruism, boredom, honor and amusement, by the end there is only one winner: the craven peasants, perfectly tuned to the turning of the earth, returning to their harvest routines even as the samurai mourn their dead and disappear into history. Sturges’ Magnificent Seven didn’t have a message as compelling, but it didn’t need to. Coasting on the megawatt star power of its cast, the movie is a balls-out tribute to male machismo, packed full of swagger and lines to live life by. “Nobody throws me my guns and tells me to run — nobody,” mutters James Coburn, and saving a village ultimately doesn’t matter quite so much as the sight of Brynner, Coburn, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and Robert Vaughn making their last stand on behalf of tough guys everywhere.
This version of the Seven, directed by Antoine (Training Day) Fuqua, retains the basic premise, which remains potent: A beleaguered town under the thumb of scummy outlaws must resort to hiring mercenaries to drive the evildoers away, leading to a diverse bunch of heroes stepping into the fray, struggling to work together even as they face an enemy with numbers on their side. This time around, the bad guys aren’t a bunch of starving bandits but a rapacious landowner named Bogue (a slimy Peter Saarsgard) and his hired cronies, which slyly hints at a critique of capitalism that never quite comes to fruition. Standing in their way is Sam Chisolm (Washington), a principled bounty hunter who accepts the townspeople’s plea for help, and for additional aid he recruits a truly motley crew of misfits, including a down-at-heel gambler (Chris Pratt), a sharpshooter who’s lost his nerve (Washington’s old Training Day buddy Ethan Hawke) and his knife-throwing pal (Lee Byung-hun), a lone Native American given to painting his face red, white and blue (Martin Sensmeier), a slow-witted trapper who speaks in one long near-intelligible slur (Vincent D’onfrio), and a bandito with nowhere else to go (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). As in previous iterations of the story, there’s pleasure to be found in the inexorable march to the final showdown, as our overmatched heroes do their best to organize the townsfolk, and attain victory through strategy and plain guts.
Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven tips its hand in the first confrontation between the Seven and a bushel of Bogue’s henchmen, wherein dozens of baddies are killed without the good guys breaking so much as a sweat (save Ethan Hawke’s shell-shocked sharpshooter). Fuqua is too jaded to buy into the kind of easy testosterone that characterized Sturges’ Magnificent Seven, but he can’t resist going hyperbolic at every opportunity. For every attempt at an elegant composition of landscapes and horses, there’s endless shots of baddies getting mowed down by the good guys, who never seem to miss. Occupying an uneasy middle ground between John Ford and a spaghetti western, the film is too over-the-top to qualify as a throwback to classicist moviemaking, and too well-mannered to convince as ribald revisionism (for a better version of what western revisionism truly looks like, one can check out Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained or The Hateful Eight, latter-day Sam Peckinpah, or even Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven).
Though Fuqua is canny enough to cast multi-ethnic actors as protagonists, he doesn’t have the imagination to move them beyond stereotype. The cast manage well enough, with Hawke getting the meatiest material and D’onfrio hamming it up to relatively fun effect (imagine Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket finding religion), but most of the time they’re stuck in poses, bonding over the usual guff: guns, gals and family. When it’s revealed that the bad guys have a Native American in their employ, is there any doubt that there will be a final face-off between him and the Native American on the home team? Lack of imagination, indeed. The movie can’t even be bothered to whip up a romance between the cocky Farraday and feisty widow Emma (Haley Bennett, resembling a pinched-up Jennifer Lawrence). Washington in particular is criminally wasted — he can play stoic and bad-ass in his sleep, but this time out he has little chance to deploy his playfulness or volatility. While other characters’ motivations are sketchy at best, Washington’s backstory turns out to be the hoariest cliché of all: Would you believe that Chisolm has a secret personal score to settle with Bogue? Sergio Leone would have inflated Chisolm’s quest for vengeance to operatic dimensions; Fuqua can only toss in some half-hearted throwaway dialogue.
The Magnificent Seven makes gestures towards the classics — Chisolm’s showdown with Bogue’s bodyguards borrows its punchline from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, a defense of the town from a church tower steals from Saving Private Ryan, and the sight of Bogue’s hundred-strong army thundering towards the town on horseback conjures up My Name is Nobody. What the film lacks is any punch of its own. Fuqua resorts to staccato cuts every once in a while to generate the illusion of pace, but he’s leaden when it comes to choreographing action or creating a sense of mood, rhythm, or suspense (no surprise given his previous stab at revisionism, King Arthur). The pleasures of a western are usually found in the margins, like spice in the stew, whether it’s a sumptuous wide-angle view of the great frontier, or the repartee between do-gooders and the people they protect and destroy. Fuqua’s Seven glosses over all of this in favor of ladling out a great formless heap of action, and by the time a Gatling gun is mowing down faceless civilians and baddies alike, you might well wonder why we’re supposed to care. Given the multiracial cast and updated premise, the better option might have been to go full hip-hop and re-imagine the story as a funky, blood-and-guts affair. As it stands, the movie has plenty of bodies, and nothing resembling blood or guts. When the final credits roll and Elmer Bernstein’s immortal “Magnificent Seven” theme blasts forth for the first and only time, the nostalgia goes down like a comforting shot of whiskey. Fuqua studiously avoids nostalgia for the rest of the film, but what does he provide in its place? This Magnificent Seven lacks many things, but most of all, it lacks a reason for being.