A big screen remake of John Sturges' classic western The Magnificent Seven, itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. Seven gun men in the old west gradually come together to help a poor village against savage thieves.
“Why does this exist?” is not a phrase a critic likes to come across in her screening notes, in part because it puts an onus on her future self: Can she answer her own question? Did the film leave any clues?
Antoine Fuqua’s remake of John Sturges’s 1960 western The Magnificent Seven has invited the use of the word ‘revisionist’. Fuqua’s band of outsiders, unlike those in the Sturges (which is itself an American take on Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) includes a Mexican, a Comanche, an Asian, and a black American. The latter is frequent Fuqua collaborator Denzel Washington, who here plays Sam Chisolm, the bounty hunter hired to defend the tiny, dusty village of Rose Creek from the predations of a sadistic mining baron named Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). But beyond diversifying his cast, Fuqua (working from a script by Richard Wenk and True Detective writer Nic Pizzolatto) revises little: the film appears uninterested in addressing the politics or history of its story, its allegory, or its genre.
The diversified cast, then, feels like more of a novelty move. Perhaps there is something to be said for downplaying or normalising the appearance of various races and ethnicities in roles traditionally dominated by whites, but this film doesn’t inspire one to say it. This Magnificent Seven is pitched as pure, shoot-em-up entertainment, with one personality trait and about ten thousand rounds of ammunition per character.
It was my (rather naïve) hope that women might play some more prominent role in this supposed re-imagining of one of the most famous westerns in film history. The most striking thing about Emma (Haley Bennett), a widow whose husband is murdered in the first scene, which depicts one of Bogue’s vicious purges (and the only woman with a speaking role), is her bust-to-waist ratio. Despite leading a search for the men who might save her town and avenge her husband’s death, Emma remains a figure to be looked at and referred to. Even her one big moment (because women like Emma always get one big moment in films like this) is tainted by the lack of realisation that feels bred into her character, a product of the limited imaginations from which she sauntered, waist cinched and shoulders bare. “You seek revenge,” Chisholm says in a typically stock exchange. “I seek righteousness, as should we all. But I’ll take revenge,” Emma replies.
Not that the men fare much better. Chisholm’s first recruit is Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), a gambler and reckless sort, a bro in spurs with some of the film’s best, bro-iest lines; next comes Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), a civil war vet and renowned marksman who now runs a hustle with Billy Rocks (Byung-hung Lee), a champion blade-slinger; Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio, who contrasts his late Orson Welles physique with a high, feathery voice), an eccentric whose battles involved mainly Native Americans; Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) a Mexican outlaw; and Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), a Comanche warrior-at-large. Fuqua treats his brutalist villain with narrative kid gloves, as though even a flicker of dimension would dilute his evil – Bogue is presented as an ambassador of American capitalism; his company is Blackstone, an obvious but ultimately toothless reference to the contemporary investment firm – rather than complicate it.
Complication is not welcome in Rose Creek. It was – it is – my conclusion that The Magnificent Seven exists to showcase how well Fuqua can choreograph sequence after sequence of mayhem and slaughter. “You know exactly what’s going to happen,” a cinemagoer told me before I saw the film, “but it’s a fun ride anyway.” The thing you know is going to happen is the final showdown between the Seven, who spend a week training the village people to fight, and Bogue’s army of nameless, faceless henchmen. The stakes of this battle feel close to nil, and nowhere near the level of investment it would take to sustain my interest in what amounts to nearly half an hour of the anonymous killing the anonymous.
In their few scenes together, Hawke and Washington, so vital in Fuqua’s Training Day, hold the screen with sheer chemistry, and perhaps a bit of history. If only this film had known what to do with the richness of its raw material. To watch The Magnificent Seven is to see a tremendous amount of potential, along with great quantities of TNT, explode in Hollywood flames.