By Preston Wilder
I heard about The Magnificent Seven before I knew who was in it, and had trouble thinking of actors who could plausibly play the seven mercenaries hired to defend a Wild West farming town; action heroes and professional tough guys are thin on the ground nowadays, Jason Statham being the notable exception. Then again, the 1960 original – itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, made six years earlier – also had a fairly undistinguished cast at the time, Yul Brynner excepted. It was really only dumb luck that four of those Seven (Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and, less so, Robert Vaughn) ended up becoming big stars years later.
More importantly, The Magnificent Seven was never just an action movie. The abiding theme in the original was the way these restless, rootless gunmen slowly became seduced by the settled life of the farmers they were protecting – but we also got individual dramas among the Seven, notably Vaughn’s secret torment at the knowledge that he’d lost his nerve and become a coward. That sub-plot goes to Ethan Hawke in the remake, though the torment is diluted by no longer being secret, noticed especially by Chris Pratt in the sardonic McQueen role – Pratt, like Hawke, being an actor seemingly more suited to romantic comedy than this kind of thing. Hawke also gets the entirety of Brad Dexter’s role in 1960 (a single line wondering if the motive for the job may be hidden treasure), while elsewhere Denzel Washington makes a good Brynner and Byung-hun Lee essays the role of Coburn’s laconic knife expert. Oh, and Horst Buchholz – the youngster who comes late to the party – is now a Comanche, which is fine. Buchholz talked too much anyway.
So much for the original; how does the remake fare on its own terms? Well, it’s violent. The villain is a ruthless robber baron (Peter Sarsgaard, doing cold-blooded to the point of looking bored) who’ll happily kill anyone from uppity farmers to incompetent minions, but our heroes are also pretty callous when it comes to violence. Pratt shoots off a man’s ear as punishment, while Denzel (now a lawman) has an awesomely crushing response to the familiar plea of the guy he’s about to wipe out: “I’ve got a family, mister!”; “They’re better off without you”. Unsurprisingly, the West is more gritty than it was 56 years ago – even the farmers have a whorehouse – though also more ethnically diverse, as per 21st-century precepts, with an implausibly plum role for a strong woman.
All in all, The Magnificent Seven isn’t too bad as the latest iteration of the band-of-heroes plot that’s informed everything from The Dirty Dozen to Suicide Squad; if it weren’t already a recognisable brand-name, however, it’s unlikely that this script would’ve made the grade as a $100 million movie. The theme of cowboys tempted by the thought of settling down is barely there, ditto the plot of training the farmers to become a fighting force. The Seven don’t have much camaraderie, and the sense of a secret fraternity is missing; one man is even coerced into joining the group (so Denzel won’t arrest him), which is not the idea at all. Instead, we get vague and waffly God-talk – Sarsgaard behaves like a god himself, talking of having “cast my gaze” upon the land, burns down a church and eventually dies (spoiler!) to the tune of the Lord’s Prayer – and occasional verbal felicities from the guy who wrote True Detective. Plus of course action.
There are two main action sequences, and the first one – at the halfway mark – actually improves on the original, changing it so that it’s the Seven (rather than the town as a whole) showing their mettle by giving Sarsgaard and his goons a bloody nose. It’s vivid and exciting, with a lot of dramatic close-ups, and also has a narrative function in convincing the townspeople and vexing the villain so he comes back to take revenge with a full army. The big action climax, however, is bloated and muddled and actually put me off the movie, not least when the bad guys pull the old ‘We have a machine-gun that could hand us victory in no time, BUT we’ll only unveil it at the end when the battle’s almost over’ trick. As a final insult, the film then decides to Make It Personal – betraying the whole ethos of the Magnificent Seven, viz. that they’re noble samurai who’d never allow a job to be dictated by personal feelings – and, as a final final insult, director Antoine Fuqua blasts a minute of Elmer Bernstein’s unforgettable music (the only appearance of the original score) over the final credits. At that point, and only at that point, does this empty, proficient Western become – briefly – magnificent.
DIRECTED BY Antoine Fuqua
STARRING Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke
US 2016 132 mins