By Carl Cottingham
The admittedly cliché saying goes that Hollywood has no new ideas in the 21st century. Numerous reviews and editorials about the subject have taken aim at the current state of the magic machine but it is a fact of the modern movie-going experience. Remakes have proven to be a lucrative business in the last few years and they show no signs of slowing down anytime soon whether we like it or not. Perhaps it was expected, no, inevitable that we would now be talking about a remake of a remake? A damn fine remake all things considered.
The Magnificent Seven, a retelling of the classic 1960 western starring Yul Brenner and Steve McQueen, itself a western-garbed version of Akira Kurosawa’s legendary Seven Samurai is a well-worn and timeless story. A town is under siege by a nefarious villain, in this case a stereotypical land baron and his paid army of hired henchmen. The citizens, simple farmers, pull their resources together and recruit seven gunmen to defend and teach them basic combat in the battle to come. It’s universal and easy to adapt to different languages, cultures, and even genres, but there isn’t much in the way of innovation or twist to be had in such a story that has been retreaded so many times over the last sixty-some-odd-years. What was once so profound and rousing in 1954 (Seven Samurai) can only be replicated when the man handling the direction knows what he’s doing.
Thankfully in the case of the 2016 version of this story, Antoine Fuqua does know what he’s doing. From landscape shots that recall classic cinema of the western frontier to action-packed carnage on the streets of Rose Creek, Fuqua infuses the film with a sensibility that, in many ways, harkens back to the Kurosawa original more so then the original Magnificent Seven. The appearance of a Gatling gun creates a terrifying storm that cuts through the entire town, glass shattering and wood splintering in dozens of different directions in a cacophony of bullet ballet. Of course, this more action-oriented film leaves a strong narrative to the wind, something that both Kurosawa and John Sturges (the director of the original Magnificent Seven) were keenly aware were essential.
The most innovative aspects that can be said about Antoine Fuqua’s interpretation of this particular story are the titular seven gunmen themselves. Denzel Washington exudes calm collected cool as the leader of the Seven and Chris Pratt shows the same cock-sure charisma that has lead him to becoming one of Hollywood’s rising stars of the last few years, my expectations from the two men. To my surprise, I found Vincent D’Onofrio’s fur-trapper to be a delight, as was Ethan Hawke’s PTSD-afflicted Civil War veteran. The seven men possess distinct looks and personalities befitting a 2016 audience that at once make them feel memorable but also instantly familiar to an audience. This is an aspect that the original Magnificent Seven failed to capitalize upon; with the star power of Charles Bronson, Yul Brenner, and Steve McQueen, it’s easy to forget that the original Seven weren’t so magnificent as characters compared to either their Japanese predecessors or to their modern descendants.
Sadly, as the core seven are the main focus on the film, supporting characters fall by the wayside outside of the determined widow who assembles the group in the first place, played beautifully by Haley Bennett. The villain, as I described prior, is simply a stereotypical land baron who is evil for the sake of being evil, nonchalantly gunning men down and setting fire to churches in bids to acquire more fortune in the name of capitalism and God. Peter Sarsgaard attempts to inject some degree of pathos into the role but he is unremarkable nonetheless. His two main henchmen, distinct from the others who besiege the town, are also given no meat nor dialogue, simply made and designed to be intimidating for the seven to eventually fight and prevail over.
There is nothing profound, deep, or life changing about the Magnificent Seven. Yet, this is not necessarily a knock against the film. It is, first and foremost, a rousing western draped in the influence and iconography of the classics combined with modern star power flair and sensibilities. Its main cast, its titular seven, is the star attraction as are the rousing gunfights that make up half of the film’s exhilarating two-hour runtime. While it doesn’t hold a candle to Kurosawa, it does, in several aspects, improve upon its 1960 predecessor to become a remake worth seeing.