‘The Magnificent Seven’ Review: I Guess ‘The Okay Seven,’ While Accurate, Wouldn’t Sell Tickets
Awards season may be underway with the official start of the Toronto Film Festival, but the fall of 2016 picks up right where summer left off with Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven, a loud and frenetic update of an old classic very few people were clamoring for. The question with any remake is why; why a new version and why one now? The movie just made its world premiere as the opening night film of TIFF 2016, and I still don’t have a satisfying answer to that question.
There are a few modern tweaks to the 1960 John Sturges film (itself an Americanized remake of the Akira Kurosawa masterpiece Seven Samurai) about seven gunfighters who band together to defend a helpless village from marauders. There’s a lot more violence, some of it pretty shocking, although none of it apparently bloody enough to merit an R rating. And the makeup of the title group is much more diverse this time around; their ranks include a Native American, a Mexican, and a Korean, all under the command of steely Denzel Washington as warrant officer Sam Chisolm. It’s a laudable choice, and the group — Washington plus Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, and Vincent D’Onofrio — make a fine crew. But the rest of the movie doesn’t find enough interesting wrinkles on the old formula to merit a reboot.
Washington’s character is recruited by the citizens of humble Rose Creek, a remote frontier village adjacent to a valuable mine. A greedy industrialist with the perfect old-timey-greedy-industrialist name of Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) orders everyone to pack up and leave so he can keep the mine all to himself, but the townsfolk, including Matt Bomer, Luke Grimes, and Haley Bennett, refuse. That sends Bennett off on a quest to find men who will help defend Rose Creek from the intruders. When Chisolm learns that Bogue is the one trying to snatch their land, he volunteers to help and forms a band of outlaws to join him. Pratt plays Josh Farraday, a card player and drunk with a love of guns that borders on the sexual. Hawke is Goodnight Robcheaux, a marksman who’s gone mysteriously gun-shy. Sensmeier’s Red Harvest wants to prove his worth as a Comanche warrior. And so on.
Washington gives great cowboy, in a black-on-black ensemble inspired by the one worn by Yul Brynner in the original Magnificent Seven, and when Chisolm’s motivation for wanting to stop Bogue is finally revealed he delivers a fiery monologue that remains the remake’s one truly memorable scene. Otherwise, this is, in every sense, cinematic leftovers: A mushy, reheated version of something that worked a lot better when it was fresh.
One curious element: Although clearly inspired by Kurosawa and Sturges, Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven borrows just as heavily from Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. True, the basic Seven premise remains intact. But the original film was set in and around a tiny Mexican hamlet under constant threat from a group of bandits; the notion of wealthy fat cats from back east trying to drive out the residents of a frontier town so they can snatch their land is a lot closer to Blazing Saddles (so is the idea of a black lawman protecting an all-white city from evil capitalists). All that’s really missing from this being a full-on shadow Blazing Saddles remake are the jokes. (Co-writer Nic Pizzolatto, the creator of True Detective, is not exactly known for his mirthful wit.)
The cast delivers as expected, although Pratt’s lovable rogue doesn’t quite live up to his lovable rogues from Guardians of the Galaxy or Jurassic World. The only other significant thing this Magnificent Seven brings to the table is a motivation for the Washington/Brenner figure. Now he’s not just a guy making a selfless, possibly suicidal heroic act; he’s got a reason to want to see Bogue’s plan fail, which is one of the go-to moves for any big Hollywood remake. Don’t just redo the thing people liked, redo it and explain it. Fuqua’s explanation does bring us to that incredible scene between Washington and Sarsgaard, but it also saps some of the original concept’s inspirational message.
There is another addition: An ending in which Bennett’s character talks about the heroes who fought for her town in voiceover, while the camera pans across one of the most laughable CGI landscapes I’ve ever seen. “They were,” she says, before a big dramatic pause, “magnificent.” Yeah, no.