I could have written my bottom line before seeing the movie. I knew how I was going to feel. This Magnificent Seven isn’t as good as the original Magnificent Seven. Antoine Fuqua’s remake starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, and Peter Sarsgaard retells the story of a small town, bullied by what seems like a small army, that enlists the help of seven rogue men to save them. Maybe a second viewing would be more revealing. It’s very easy to be unfair to this kind of film. It’s stepping into the shoes of a cultural giant, and trying to take a different path to the same place. I commend the approach. They could have coasted off the aura of the original. That movie, itself a remake, abandoned the austerity of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and instead went for a sense of pure adventure, on its way to becoming iconic. The score, by Elmer Bernstein, is a classic. The cast of heroes, most notably Yul Brynner, Steve Mcqueen, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson were emblematic of 60’s era cool, linking hyper-masculinity and toughness with integrity. The latter three men would go on to be leading action figures for the next two decades. However, that Magnificent Seven achieved its immense popularity and esteem over time. Looking back at initial reviews, the consensus is pretty typical, and not dissimilar to reviews of this 2016 model. “Pallid reflection of the Japanese original,” said New York Times. So perhaps the final word on this new western is a decade or two down the line, in the hands of the millions of people who have never seen the original. Afterall, fifty-six years is a long time ago, and The Magnificent Seven 2016 does have pleasures of its own.
Any strong feelings about a Magnificent Seven film must start with the cast of characters:
Denzel Washington leads the gang as Sam Chisolm. He’s the only character in the group that is given a clearly defined motive in helping the town (one of the film’s weaknesses in my opinion). Washington is one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, and he’s more than compelling enough to stand out and distance himself from the original’s shadow.
Chris Pratt has the tricky assignment of being the film’s most charismatic personality. His Farraday character mixes some of the traits of Steve Mcqueen and Toshiro Mifune which means he will be compared to them. He comes up short in my estimation.
Ethan Hawke is one of the more interesting side characters. He is Goodnight Robicheaux, an old Rebel soldier and dubious friend from Chisolm’s past.
Vincent D’onofrio is Jacke Horne. D’onofrio is a proven character actor and does a lot with little screen time in this picture. His sheer size is one of the more memorable aspects of the film.
Manuel Garcia-Rulfo is a Mexican outlaw, Vasquez, coerced into helping the town by Chisolm. He largely gets lost in the shuffle of such a big cast. He adds diversity which is nice, but he brings more to the poster than to the film.
Lee Byung-hun is Billy, a former railroad worker and outlaw from…(they don’t ever say that I can remember, but the actor is Korean). The strong silent type in the mold of James Coburn from the original or Seiji Miyaguchi from Seven Samurai. His main purpose is to be cool, and he is, with a nod to the Coburn knife throwing scene for his introduction.
Martin Sensmeier a wandering Comanche named Red Harvest ends up being a pretty memorable character. I was sure he was going to be a token figure but he is given his moments to stand out, though without significant dialogue or motivation.
Overall, this new cast of seven is pretty good as they face off against wealthy robber baron, played by Peter Sarsgaard, with his own private militia working for him. The action sequences are exciting for the most part, and the script manages moments of humor to make the proceedings feel a little more fun. My quibbles with the film are firstly, the way the film manages to fill out its diverse cast in a very politically correct fashion. Race never seems to be an awkward point in this 19th century setting, and that’s kind of crazy. I was struck, watching Denzel Washington ride into town as the people’s savior, with the thought of how much more realistic Blazing Saddles (of all things) felt in the scene where Cleavon Little rides in and is eventually greeted with angry surprise by the white townspeople. Secondly, and to me the most glaring flaw is the score, or the total absence of a theme song to be more specific. It’s The Magnificent Seven. How can there not be a theme song? As escapism and as a setup for an action showcase, the film works, and the ride is never dull. Just don’t expect a whole lot more than that.