It seems funny calling The Magnificent Seven a remake. Beyond knowing that 1960’s Magnificent Seven was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, this basic story of innocent people recruiting a ragtag group to help them stop an evil threat has been seen many times over the decades. Even Pixar has used this formula with one of their earliest features, A Bug’s Life. All of that is to say that the latest iteration of this story is not adding a whole lot to the conversation, but it does feature a strong cast and its fair share of engaging gun fights.
Denzel Washington leads the cast this time around as Sam Chisolm, a bounty hunter who tends to keep his eyes on the prize. Due to some implied personal history, Sam decides to take up an offer from Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), a young woman whose town is in need of help. She and her people have been put under siege by the vicious Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) and it will be up to Sam and a group of outlaws to help rescue the innocents from Bogue’s grasp. These outlaws include Josh Farraday (Chris Pratt), Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier).
The clearest thing I found from all of this was how much fun and deliberation there must have been when coming up with the names for all of these characters. However, in regards to the film itself, The Magnificent Seven plays it pretty straight. Director Antoine Fuqua (leading the Training Day reunion between himself, Washington and Hawke) does not seem to have a whole lot of interest in adding much innovation to the western genre nor does he feel particularly inspired by anything beyond the basic tropes.
Utilizing plenty of digital trickery and modern effects, The Magnificent Seven certainly has the feel of an action flick from today that just happens to be set in the old west. It doesn’t mean we do not get ample shots of men on horses and six-shooters in action (plenty of revolver fanning to be seen here), but it does seem like Fuqua was more excited to make a western than he was to embrace what John Ford, John Sturges and others really brought to the craft. Fuqua is not required to do any such thing, but it suggests there is no real greater meaning to this film, beyond getting to see Denzel on a horse and a bunch of macho guys make jokes and shoot evil cowboys.
Writers Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk provide the basic structuring to set up Sarsgaard’s villainous persona and it is here (in the opening scenes) where the movie does the most to lay out what it is all about. The nature of tyranny and what it takes to stop homegrown terrorism (in the form of an evil businessman) is how the film attempts to reflect themes that have remained in the public consciousness for many years. There is also the intensity of the violence, which practically seems like a point of contention between the filmmakers and the studio.
There will be little surprise if an “unrated” or “extended” version of Magnificent Seven arrives, as this PG-13 remake of a PG film seems clearly edited down from an R, let alone a bit choppy in getting the most out of each character. Fortunately, despite Fuqua seemingly working to his limits when it comes to his prowess as an action director, the film moves at a pretty good clip. For a 2 hour+ western, that is saying something.
Much of what works about the film’s pacing is due to the cast. Washington goes the Eastwood route of playing his role quite understated. He gets a time to shine as best he knows how when the film calls for it, but much of the film requires him to simply be seen as the epitome of cool, black cowboy. The others have considerably more flare, particularly Pratt, who is game to use his charm here.
The others more or less get defined by their character traits and it actually works without the film overdoing it too much. Hawke, however, is surprisingly the one significant character with a clear arc. As a Civil War veteran, we get a chance to see this former military sharpshooter go through some PTSD-related crisis that adds a good amount of shading and a chance to see a different sort of chemistry between him and the others. He may actually have some of the funniest quips as well, making Hawke my pick for the film’s MVP.
There could be something to say about Bennett’s character, but the film goes out of its way to make sure the danger she faces is not significant enough to cause politically correct debates that lead to major online essays. It then comes down to Sarsgaard, who does his best to portray a slimy villain who presents a threat. But why focus on that, when you can enjoy all the silliness of D’Onofrio hamming it up in other scenes?
Much of the joy in this film will come from seeing the seven come together and the two major gun fights. One is a fun showdown midway through the film, but it is the final third that delivers all the action the audience expects. While other recent western remakes (True Grit, 3:10 to Yuma) may have explored some interesting themes and matched them with strong characters, Magnificent Seven is happier to ride in the saddle of a typical action film. It is not all that deep, but the film is a lot of fun.