The Magnificent Seven
Antoine Fuqua (2016)
In 1954, classic Japanese director Akira Kurosawa brought out his masterpiece, Seven Samurai. That film, set in 16th century Japan, is the story of seven masterless samurai (or ronin) who are hired by a poor farming village to defend the town against a gang of bandits who will be returning to after the harvest to steal the poor farmers’ crops. The samurai protect the town, though only three of them live through the battle. The film has since been recognized as one of the greatest films ever made.
Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, in 1960 John Sturges adapted Kurosawa’s plot, reimagining it as an American western, and created The Magnificent Seven. One of the great movie westerns, The Magnificent Seven starred Yul Brynner, but provided a huge breakout role for Steve McQueen that made him a major star, as well as giving tremendous career boosts to three more of the seven—James Coburn, Robert Vaughan, and Charles Bronson (Sturges used McQueen, Coburn and Bronson for major roles in his next project, The Great Escape). In Sturges’ story, Brynner recruits six other gunslingers to cross the border and protect a Mexican town from a marauding gang of Mexican bandits. At first the seven look at it as a job, but their motives ultimately transcend the mundane, as they seem willing to die for this village of strangers. The bandit leader, played by Eli Wallach, is mystified by what drives Brynner and his men. “A man like you? Why?” he asks. The audience is left to puzzle it out.
Now director Antoine Fuqua has taken the title and the basic plot of Sturges’ film and updated it with an eye to letting it speak more vividly to a 2016 audience. And so it is not so much a remake of the original Magnificent Seven as it is an adaptation, as Sturges’ film was of Kurosawa’s. There are a number of ways in which Fuqua and screenwriters Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk go about this. First, one of the problems with Sturges’ film that becomes clearer in hindsight is that it depicts a group of seven white Americans protecting a town of Mexican cowards from a gang of Mexican brigands. It smacks of imperialism as well as negative stereotyping, and Fuqua tackles that from the very beginning: his Yul Brynner character is Sam Chisolm, played by Denzel Washington. So the leader of the seven in Fuqua’s version is an African American. The others include a Chinese knife thrower named Billy Rocks (Byung-Hun Lee in what is essentially the James Coburn role), a Mexican gunslinger named Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and a Native American—a Comanche warrior named Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). The group is filled out by a wise-cracking cardsharp Josh Farraday (Chris Pratt in what amounts to the Steve McQueen role), an ex-confederate sniper named Goodnight Robidheaux (Ethan Hawke in what resembles the Robert Vaughn role), and a curiously neurotic mountain man who is himself a mountain of a man, Jack Horne, played with mad gusto by Vincent D’Onofrio. The group is almost a color-by-number rainbow coalition, to represent America of the 21st century.
Much of the ethnic diversity goes unremarked upon, except for Farraday’s comment when Chisolm recruits Vasquez—“Good, we’ve got a Mexican!” And to this is added the fact that the leader of the town or at least the one person in the town with “balls enough” (as is said) to hire Chisolm to protect her home, is a woman, Emma Cullen (played by Haley Bennett), whose husband is murdered in front of her and the rest of the town in the film’s opening scene. Emma, who needs no help firing a rifle, becomes herself a valuable sniper in the film’s ultimate battle, and truly should be numbered among the magnificent eight who save the town. Or what’s left of it. Another wrinkle you’d be pretty hard to come by fifty-six years ago.
The town and its problems have also changed somewhat. The setting for the new film is Rose Creek, a small town apparently in California in 1879. So no imperialist Americans “rescuing” a town of lazy, cowardly Mexicans. And it is not bandits who threaten the town, but a land-grabbing “industrialist” robber-baron named Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who takes over a gold mine outside of town and then decides he wants to own the entire village. He employs a private army to coerce the citizens to give him what he wants. He stands up in the church and tells the townspeople that Americans have equated democracy with capitalism—and God’s will with democracy—making a religious case for his larceny and murder. At least Eli Wallach never tried that one. But this is, of course, Fuqua’s comment on contemporary American politics—Sarsgaard was even quoted as saying that his character was at least in part “clearly” based on Donald Trump. That, of course, is probably an overstatement (though I’m guessing Bogue wasn’t paying any taxes either). In any case, Fuqua makes the threats against the town a bit more contemporary. But it must be admitted this is no complex characterization: Bogue is simply evil, as is everything he stands for. Period. And his goons are no more than faceless brute automatons.
As for the good guys, well, Chisolm is hired, and goes about putting together his dream team of renegades, gunslingers, and misfits (the mountain man lives by himself in the wild, the lone Comanche has been told by his tribe that he needs to go his own way). They take the town from the mercenary guards Bogue has hired to police it while he is in Sacramento, then set about training the townspeople to fight in the few days they have before Bogue is sure to return with an army of hired killers. Everything builds to a final scene of outrageous carnage.
That final scene is as long and violent and explosive and jam-packed with firepower as any of the violent climaxes of typical summer action blockbusters punctuated by superheroes throwing supervillains through buildings and the like. Except there are horses. There is also not much of the town left after a Pyrrhic victory. Fuqua excels in such scenes, and if you’re chiefly interested in a lot of violence that goes on for a long tine (though nothing presented graphically), then you will find no fault with this movie.
But this film has more in common with movies about teams of superheroes than simply a final Armageddon-like scene. The film is a bit like this year’s earlier Captain America: Civil War in that respect: a lot of characters vying for screen time who can only distinguish themselves in the short time they have by character-specific wisecracks or quirks or “super powers”—in this case throwing knives or shooting arrows. There is a great cast here, but they aren’t given much to play with in terms of characterization. Pratt brings some comic relief with his smart mouth and his tricks, but we never see what’s behind the smile. Hawke’s character could be quite interesting, but we aren’t given much to go on regarding the motivation for his conflicted character. Other than his being Mexican, we know nothing about Garcia-Rulfo’s character, except that he is a wanted man and that his grandfather fought on the Mexican side at the Alamo. Sensmeier and Lee have nothing to do at all other than be ethnic and kill a lot of people at the end. D’Onofrio, as always, adds a lot of strange quirks to his bear-like mountain man, and those things make him noticeable, even interesting, but they don’t give him a soul. We don’t know his backstory and don’t know what makes him the person he is. As for Sarsgaard, he drags himself through the part with a lackadaisical, even apathetic air, so superior to everything and everyone around him that his evil is chillingly detached. But even he has no backstory, and other than simple greed—and arrogance—it’s hard to see his motivations either.
Only Washington at times shows us glimpses of a life before, one that makes his quest to rid the west of Bogue more complex than the selfless sacrifice that ultimately seems to motivate the rest of the seven. It’s a decent performance but it certainly doesn’t rise to his Oscar-winning turn in 2001’s Training Day, where he was also teamed with director Fuqua and co-star Hawke. And the determined earnestness of Haley Bennett as the resolute widow also rises above the rest of the performances—we do know her background and her motivation, and she makes no bones about what’s on her mind when she hires Chisolm: “So you seek revenge,” he says to her. “I seek righteousness,” she answers him truthfully, and then adds. “But I’ll take revenge.” That being, one presumes, the only thing she can really expect to get from Chisolm and his wild bunch.
In the end, the film is entertaining and has its moments. The cinematography is often striking—westerns do, after all, have a lot to offer in that area. And yes, although the score teases you throughout with what seems like the buildup to Elmer Bernstein’s memorable and arresting “Magnificent Seven” theme from Sturges’ film only to stop short, you do get to hear it at the end over the credits, like a final exclamation point on the film. While this doesn’t measure up to Sturges’ film, and is a far cry from Kurosawa’s, Fuqua’s reimagined Magnificent Seven is a pretty good time. I’m feeling generous today, so I’m going to give it three Tennysons.