This latest take on the classic tale of a besieged village relying on the kindness of strangers is merely one of many to take a shot at re-telling Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai over the years. Notable previous attempts have included The Three Amigos and A Bug’s Life but the enduring story is most synonymous with John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven thanks to its all-star cast and the iconic Elmer Bernstein score. Antoine Fuqua’s decision to do a direct remake of that version was met with some chagrin and trepidation that was slightly eased by the presence of his regular leading man, Denzel Washington, and rising star Chris Pratt.
Can it live up to one of the last classics of the traditional western or is it just further proof of Hollywood’s increasingly mistaken belief that a remake is a gift that keeps on giving?
Mr. Washington Goes Smith & Wesson
We all know the premise (it’s in the opening of this review if you need to refer to it) and this particular take on it opens with Peter Sarsgaard’s boo-hiss villain demanding the inhabitants of a mid-west settlement hand over their land at a cut-cost or suffer the consequences, which take place quickly after the town attempts to mutiny. The hunt is then on for Haley Bennet’s very recently widowed farmer’s wife to find a group of good men who will fight for them in their hour of need.
Of course, this is what we’ve been waiting for: to see modern day stars fill the iconic roles of Yul Brenner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, etc. It’s fair to say that this Magnificent Seven has shuffled the pack to some degree as only Denzel directly fills Yul Brenner’s shoes with Lee Byung-hun doing likewise as James Coburn’s knife fighter from the original. One would’ve hoped to see Chris Pratt stepping in for Steve McQueen so we could have had some banter filled comradery with Washington but he’s kind of occupying the cocky upstart role of Horst Buchholz and the two are virtual strangers throughout. Denzel’s old partner in crime, Ethan Hawke, is more in-line with McQueen’s sharp-shooter but gets precious little screen time to engage with the Seven’s head honcho.
Once assembled with the last three members of the gang -Vincent D’Onofrio’s Indian-hunter; Manuel Garcia-Rulfo’s Mexican outlaw; and Martin Sensmeier’s Native-American tracker- they set about clearing out the corrupt law keepers and then plan how to defend the town from the return of Sarsgaard’s aforementioned mustache-twirler before an almighty bloody final conflict where chaos reigns both in term of on-screen action and the plot.
Only Washington and Hawke can really be commended on bringing their A-game here (the latter’s PTSD suffering crack-shot is by far the best thing in the film), whereas Chris Pratt seems content with occasional quip and gets an undeservedly large amount of screen time -presumably so he can add a lot of footage of him wearing a hat to his Indiana Jones showreel. Sarsgaard’s attempts to channel Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview after seemingly only reading the Cliffs Notes for There Will be Blood so it just results in banal villainy and most definitely lacks Eli Wallach’s devilish wit and deviancy that proved so threatening 56 years ago. As for the remainders of the Seven, they pretty much conform to their given stereotypes -apart D’Onofrio, but whatever the hell he’s trying to do with his Indian tracker is a process exclusive to his thoughts only. Elsewhere, Haley Bennet fulfills her plucky and (obligatorily) capable female presence well and does briefly come off the bench for one of the titular Seven to presumably stop this becoming too much of a sausage-fest for modern audiences.
Overall, the cast simply fall short of their predecessors, which were always going to be some tough boots to fill but changing some of that footwear only goes so far. And it’s a shame because it does seem like the rest of the film was really counting on them to pull it through.
The Western World
For many film buffs, a very firm line was drawn under the western genre with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven in the early 90’s and if a filmmaker was heading back out west since then, they needed to be packing some revisionist commentary along for the ride to retain some form of validity. Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight have provided just that over the last few years and Andrew Dominik’s criminally ignored masterpiece, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, provided such by the truckload and is by far the best addition to the genre this century -maybe even any century. However, it is more straight shooting fare like 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma (another direct remake) that 2016’s The Magnificent Seven takes it cues from and one can’t help but think that’s not enough if you’re going to overhaul one of the most famous westerns of all time.
Antoine Fuqua delivers a visually authentic experience but he has almost nothing to say about either the genre or the period. For instance, there’s only a mere ruffling of feathers as an armed black man walks into town leading a ragtag bunch, which seems more than a little incredulous given white folk’s attitudes of the time. At least, Fuqua tries to let the film go its own way and not rely on its progenitor too much (only one scene is lifted straight from Sturges’ version and Sarsgaard mumbles the original’s best line “If God didn’t want them sheared…” towards the end) but this does create its own problems.
The characters rarely rise above the rank of ciphers on the most part and lack any real dimensions (Hawke’s PTSD aside). There’s a clumsy attempt to give Denzel some extra motivation in the final confrontation with Sarsgaard when it’s suddenly revealed the evil landowner is responsible for a devastating event in the hero’s past but we really could have done with knowing that a lot earlier. The update certainly ups things on the action front but almost to its detriment as the climatic conflict quickly descends into a bullet-ridden bloodbath that reaches such levels of death and destruction, one has to question if the townsfolk selling up wasn’t the better option in the end. But perhaps its biggest crime is the lack of mind games and treachery that ran through the original: with Sarsgaard’s villain off-screen for most of the first two acts he’s deprived of any interaction with the heroes, whereas Wallach’s bandit leader had an almost ubiquitous Faustian-like presence in the 1960’s version as he toyed with the protagonists rather than opting for a straight-up fight from the off.
As a western, The Magnificent Seven is perfectly adequate, though some introspection and self-awareness would have made it much more palatable for modern film fans. As a remake, it’s unlikely to upset anybody but it’s also frustrating that the tinkering never leads to any meaningful change and having to wait until the end credits to hear that glorious theme tune pretty much sums up its unsatisfying nature.
A functional, if perfunctory, western that seems comfortable in the shadow of its predecessor but does little to eclipse it.