Hollywood loves its remakes, and even remakes of remakes, as the new version of Ben-Hur proved this year. Antoine Fuqua reaches back almost as long ago (fifty-six years) to bring back The Magnificent Seven, itself a remake of Akiro Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Fuqua and star Denzel Washington succeed in making a fun popcorn Western, but one that more closely resembles a cross between Pale Rider and Open Range than its namesake.
The story uses some of the elements of the original, but changes up others. Rather than a sleepy Mexican village under siege from bandits, we now get a story of humble American settlers whose tranquil valley has been all but stolen from them by a murderous gold-mining robber baron, Bart Bogue. After mumbling a few things about capitalism and God, Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) has a few villagers killed pour encourager les autres. The widow of one such victim finds federal warrant officer Chisolm (Washington) and convinces him to wreak vengeance on Bogue and his army. Chisolm rustles up six others looking for some form of redemption in their back stories, and away we go.
Some friends complained about the changes as a form of social-justice lecturing. Sarsgaard’s soliloquy might certainly set that mood, but it doesn’t go much farther than that and the ethnically diverse casting of the main roles, neither of which distract much from the action. The evil robber baron/train mogul/cattle king antagonist has been around as long as Westerns have hit the silver screen. Pale Rider even added in some conservationist tropes for good measure, but it didn’t get in the way of a good story. The Magnificent Seven’s outsiders just seem a little more outsiderish than in the original version, even if one has to wonder why the clearly not-poverty-stricken townspeople in the 2016 edition couldn’t manage this fight on their own in the first place. However, if these kinds of changes tend to get your teeth grinding, you won’t be happy with this film until the action really gets under way.
On the debit side, #Mag7 misses the heart of the original (and the original original) film. Both the 1960 version and its Kurosawa antecedent told a moral about the futility of the fight. In both, the protagonists acknowledge that the carnage means everyone lost except the farmers who managed to survive. The new film makes personal revenge much more a motivation, especially for Chisolm, and the conclusion is a celebration of the carnage rather than a recognition of its futility. It has a similar emotional resonance to Pale Rider in that sense, without the mystic qualities or the shameless Shane homage at the end.
Even if the new film misses the emotional mark, it’s still fun, albeit a little clichéd. The supporting cast is excellent, with Ethan Hawke reuniting with Washington from Training Day, on hand to offer up the gunslinger-with-a-confidence-crisis subplot. Chris Pratt has more fun as a card sharp whose motivation to join in this fight seems a little too thin, and Byung-hun Lee gets into the spirit as Hawke’s steadying influence. Haley Bennett plays the young widow who inevitably turns out to be a crack shot (that’s not much of a spoiler, really), but Vincent D’Onofrio as mountain man Jack Horne is either brilliant or bizarre … and probably both.
At worst, The Magnificent Seven is a fun way to pass 135 minutes, a paint-by-numbers horse opera with actors who get the most out of the material, even if that material makes it a generic Western wearing the clothes of another film. The action sequences are well-executed and gripping (Shaky-Cam is blessedly absent), and the revenge motif provides a satisfying if all too familiar payoff.
On the Hot Air scale, I’d give it a four:
- 5 – Full price ticket
- 4 – Matinee only
- 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
- 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
- 1 – Avoid at all costs
The Magnificent Seven is rated PG-13 for “Western violence” and, er, historical smoking. Oooooooooo-kay. Suffice it to say that I wouldn’t take my 14-year-old granddaughter to see this, so I’d consider this a harder PG-13 than Ben-Hur.