Denzel Washington gathers a merry band of cowpokes to protect a lowly farming village from an evil San Francisco mining mogul in The Magnificent Seven, a remake of the 1960 western, itself a remake of the Akira Kurosawa classic Seven Samurai. Not to mention all the other remakes and sequels and ripoffs those films had inspired since.
So what new does 2016’s Mag 7 have to bring to the table?
In short: not much. Writers Richard Wenk (The Equalizer) and Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective), and director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), have stripped the premise to its bare bones for a feature that is exciting enough when it isn’t overly long in the tooth.
The 1960 film, not to mention the 3.5-hour Seven Samurai, weren’t short on story: beyond the general premise of a seven-man team of professionals being recruited to save a town from thugs, each character in those films had their own unique story during the course of the action.
In the 2016 version, meanwhile, they’re lucky to get a choice line of dialogue, or even a meaningful glance. Instead of active storylines, these characters only get backstory as they wait around for the climactic shootout a la High Noon.
Everything is bigger and badder these days, so that final shootout is the final shootout to top all final shootouts, as (literally) hundreds of men ride into Rose Creek to slaughter and get slaughtered, and rather suddenly the movie becomes a tactical war movie instead of a Western.
It’s clear Rose Creek needs some significant defending after a lengthy prologue in which the extraordinarily cruel Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, at his slimiest) offs a few civilians in the street and burns the city’s church to the ground. The townspeople’s crime? They don’t want to sell their land to Bogue at a third of the going rate, and had the nerve to hold a town meeting to discuss what to do.
So a widow of one of the slain men (Hardcore Henry’s Haley Bennett) and accompaniment (Luke Grimes) head out to hire some gunfighters to defend the town, bringing all the funds they’ve got. They wind up with Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington, taking over the Yul Brynner role from the earlier movie) who then brings along Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt, filling in for Steve McQueen).
And they mosey along for the first half of the movie, eventually picking up five more men (played by Ethan Hawke, Byung-hun Lee, Vincent D’Onofrio, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Martin Sensmeier) through sheer happenstance rather than intricate planning, as in previous versions of this story. (Then: “Six? No – we need seven.” Now: “Whatever.”)
But the first half is fun, in any event, because of performers and the mere introduction of their character’s traits. I particularly liked Pratt’s wisecracking drunk, and D’Onofrio’s not-so-gentle giant, though Washington is more sullen and bland here than usual. But best of all is the charismatic Garcia-Rulfo, who looks like he was plucked out of a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western and feels destined for stardom.
During the second half of the film, however, these characters have little to do other than to look intense (that serious backstory needs plenty of buildup) and prepare for war.
That final shootout, however, is expertly constructed and realized – a real slam-bang Hollywood action setpiece that just overwhelms the audience. I only wish we had been given more insight into the preparations; there are endless scenes of characters digging trenches and building weapons, but little detail about how they intend to use them.
You get your money’s worth in 2016’s Magnificent Seven, in other words, as slick and soulless as the enterprise might sometimes feel. But there are so few decent Westerns being made on this scale any longer that this one is just good enough to recommend. It’s a helluva lot better than Cowboys & Aliens, at any rate.