Let me say right off that I don’t consider the 1960 Magnificent Seven, a Western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, to be a particularly good film. Crudely directed and poorly written, it was just about saved by Charles Lang’s photography and the tussle for screen space among Steve McQueen, Yul Brynner, James Coburn and Charles Bronson. That the new Magnificent Seven, directed by Antoine Fuqua, improves on it in most respects is hardly surprising. If it were comparable to Kurosawa’s film… well, that would’ve been something.
Whatever one may think of Quentin Tarantino’s last two Westerns, at least they dealt head-on with the implications of what it is they were showing onscreen. Fuqua’s film, set in the 1870s, has a posse so breathtakingly multi-racial it would seem to turn genre convention on its head. Yet, the film never suggests that the white men among the seven had any problem taking orders from a black man, or that there was any friction between a Native American and a former Indian killer. It’s revisionist for revisionist’s sake—there’s no political charge in its challenging of genre conventions.
The broad story is the same as the earlier films. Industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) and his gang have been terrorizing a small town named Rose Creek. The citizens, desperate, decide to hire gunfighters to defend them. They convince bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), who in turn sets about hiring six other crusty veterans: Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt); Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his knife-throwing sidekick Billy Rocks (South Korean actor Byung-hun Lee); a Mexican, Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo); a trapper, Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio) and a Comanche, Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) – the last name a little nod to those who know their Kurosawa references.
After a complicated standoff, the seven settle down to lay traps, work out their respective neuroses and wait for the battle, which, when it comes, is rather magnificent. Fuqua may not be the most inventive of directors—he pans up bodies so many times it becomes comical— but he’s spent most of his career making action films, and the prospect of remaking the greatest fight scene of all time (Seven Samurai, not the Sturges film) seems to have fired him up. It takes up—or seems to take up—a quarter of the film’s two-hour running time. What comes before is unremarkable but diverting: Pratt overdoes his hyper-masculine shtick, but Hawke and Washington are watchable as always, and D’Onofrio is delightfully weird. In an astonishing show of restraint, Elmer Bernstein’s famous score from the 1960 film is only heard at the end. It’s a good decision: that joyous, leaping tune wouldn’t have suited this gritty remake.
The Magnificent Seven released in theatres on Friday.