Film Review: The Magnificent SevenSatisfying, action-packed remake of the 1960 western classic, with an appealing ensemble cast led by Denzel Washington.
The story of The Magnificent Seven first saw the light of day as The Seven Samurai, the 1954 Japanese action classic by Akira Kurosawa that was so invigorating, it was inevitable that Hollywood would adapt it into a western in 1960. And the template is so sturdy, it’s almost surprising that Hollywood would wait so long to remake it again. In 1960, it was a vehicle for recent Oscar winner Yul Brynner and a group of rising actors who would become significant stars in the coming years: Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson and future Man from U.N.C.L.E. Robert Vaughn (with handsome young German actor Horst Buchholz incongruously cast as a Mexican male ingénue).
In 2016, the formula works again, with some shrewd changes. Denzel Washington is the even more formidable Oscar-winning lead, paired with his Training Day co-star Ethan Hawke, box-office force Chris Pratt, and the always surprising Vincent D’Onofrio. And for diversity beyond the casting of Washington, there’s Korean superstar Byung-hun Lee, Tlingit-Athabascan actor Martin Sensmeier as a Cherokee, and an actual Mexican, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, as the Mexican. And, in a sly touch, this time around it’s not poor Mexican farmers seeking help from the Seven, but a community of largely white folks being menaced by a cruel robber baron.
The very popular 1960 western with the iconic Elmer Bernstein score owed a lot to its ensemble of cool cats, and Antoine Fuqua’s remake also benefits from the easy chemistry of its multi-cultural cast. But this is also very much a 21st-century picture: John Sturges’ 1960 outing rested more on character interaction than action-action, conserving its energy for the big faceoff in the final ten minutes. Fuqua’s version, written by Nic Pizzolatto of “True Detective” fame and Richard Wenk (Fuqua’s The Equalizer), doesn’t stint on appealing character moments, but it ups the ante action-wise, with a massively firepowered showdown that doesn’t quit for some 30 minutes. Modern action fans who may have second thoughts about attending a western will not be disappointed.
What the film doesn’t have is its two predecessors’ complicated relationship between the titular mercenaries and the woefully unprepared townspeople they’ve been hired to protect. Once a few dissenters leave town, it’s everyone in this fight together, with little questioning of their gunslinging leaders’ pasts. (Actually, they’re a generally admirable bunch, with the possible exception of Pratt’s mischievous gambler character, John Farraday.)
Washington is Sam Chisolm, a bounty hunter with very personal reasons for battling pompous, sadistic industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (played by Peter Sarsgaard for maximum oily villainy). Hawke’s complication is that he’s a renowned Confederate sharpshooter, Goodnight Robicheaux, who’s experiencing some severe post-Civil War PTSD. And D’Onofrio is Jack Horne, an amusing eccentric who brings religious fervor to the art of killing. Like James Coburn in 1960, the charismatic Lee’s Billy Rocks is a master at throwing knives, while Sensmeier’s Red Harvest is naturally very handy with a quiver of arrows.
Things are so desperate in 1800s Rose Creek, no one seems to care that they’ve placed their fate in the hands of this veritable Rainbow Coalition. And just to add even more enlightenment to the story, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), the young woman who hired them, winds up right up there on the front lines, an honorary magnificent eighth.
Yes, this is The Magnificent Seven seen through a modern lens, but this durable tale of an impromptu band of fighters facing impossible odds was always meant to be bigger and grander than life. (And as in the originals, there are poignant fatalities among the Seven.) Anchored by a reliably authoritative Washington, with heroic moments for the entire septet, Fuqua’s film is a solidly crafted western with both nostalgic appeal and a refreshing contemporary flavor.
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