The big difference between the new version of The Magnificent Seven and the revered 1960 feature is the ethnic background of the main characters. The titular seven in director Antoine Fuqua’s take are a diverse bunch, while the ruthless villain of the piece is no longer a Mexican bandito but, instead, a cutthroat white capitalist. Other than the revisionist casting, however, nothing particularly original or fresh has been injected into this competently made, violent but uningratiating remake of the star-studded John Sturges Western, which itself was a redo of Akira Kurosawa’s imperishable 1954 classic, Seven Samurai.
This efficient but uninspired third teaming of Denzel Washington and Fuqua looks to be a solid box-office performer upon its late September release.
The premise is as sturdy as they come, one that, no matter what the specific cultural context, is universally appealing: A defenseless village comes under repeated attack by an outlaw gang until a small band of mercenary loners pulls together to fight the bad guys off. Significantly adding to the pleasure of seeing the marauders get their just deserts are the tough, nothing-to-lose personalities of the band of well-armed guardians, which, in the 1960 version, was led by Yul Brynner and prominently featured the little-known Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and Robert Vaughn.
This time out, it would seem that ethnic variety was the guiding principle more than anything else, the obvious irony being that it’s now a rainbow coalition of misfits defending an all-white town against all-white villains way out west in 1879. One needs to take this fantasy for what it says about contemporary culture rather than for anything remotely relevant historically, and there are certainly small kicks to be had watching an Asian warrior fling his sharp knives at unsuspecting baddies, the Native American take aim with his arrows and no one on the side of righteousness seeming to ever miss a shot.
Unfortunately, these new elements introduced by Fuqua and screenwriters Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) and Richard Wenk are, not to coin a phrase, just skin-deep. Theoretically, recasting the makeup of the gang created a real opportunity to provide a small taste of the past experiences of such diverse men on the frontier — a chance, via a few short monologues or running commentaries, to hear some tales, tall or otherwise, of the Old West’s renegades and outcasts. The 1960 edition (which, curiously, was not a great commercial success in the U.S. but was huge overseas, enough so to spark sequels) got by on the taciturn cool of its cast; this one could have distinguished itself by evoking some human and historical truths. It presents itself as culturally relevant, then does little with it, much less than did the more radically revisionist Django Unchained.
But the film’s worst blunder lies in making the villain so one-dimensionally sick. Peter Sarsgaard plays mining baron Bartholomew Bogue, who, with his well-armed goons, kills whomever he wants while demanding that the citizens of little Rose Creek sell their gold-laden property to him at a fraction of its worth. Just for kicks, he burns down the local church as a parting gesture while promising to return soon.
When bright-toothed, black-clad Sam Chisolm (Washington) turns up in town, he gets the not-unexpected “What the hell is he doing here?” remarks from the local good ol‘ boys at the saloon. He soon turns that attitude around, but even while insisting, “I’m not for sale,” Sam begins gathering societal misfits around him who might, for fun and possible profit, be willing to take on the bad boys on behalf of the helpless, most prominently represented by recently widowed redhead Emma (Haley Bennett).
In short order, Sam has filled out his lineup card of talented players. They number Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), a professional gambler savvy with explosives; Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), a Southern marksman, aka the Angel of Death; Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), an old mountain man; Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), a Korean who can fling those blades; Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), an outlaw by trade; and Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), a native warrior so elaborately painted, coiffed and adorned that he looks ready to join a modern Village People.
Before the inevitable showdown with the bad guys, there’s plenty of time to get to know these misfits a bit better. Unfortunately, Fuqua, Pizzolatto and Wenk stick to pretty stock exchanges and filler between isolated bits of action instead of inquiring into illuminating nooks and crannies of their characters. For example, D’Onofrio’s girth, red face and bushy beard remind of nothing so much as Shakespeare’s Falstaff, and it might have been great to hear the fuzzy buzzard go on about a past exploit or two, real and/or imagined — or to listen to Hawke’s old Confederate tell a Civil War story, or know something about how Billy Rocks and Red Harvest ended up outside their own cultures. And certainly Sam has a tale or two to tell about his experiences as a black man roaming the West trying to carve out a living.
But, no, we scarcely get to know these guys at all. We’re stuck with the filmmakers trying to come up with one way or another to inject some violence into the proceedings every 10 minutes or so while waiting for Bogue and his goons to show up to take possession of the town.
The eventual showdown bears more the contours of an actual battle than it does in the Sturges version of 56 years ago; the Seven have fashioned a bunch of surprises for the invaders — trenches, traps and so on — while, for their part, the demented capitalists have brought along a Gatling gun to mow down as many damnable holdouts as possible. Except for the fact that virtually every shot, chop or stab the good guys make hits its mark to make the bad guys quickly drop like toy soldiers, the climactic showdown delivers what it needs to action-wise, leading to a satisfactory wrap-up.
The downside of the last stretch, however, is that Sarsgaard’s villain cuts a figure more ridiculous than chilling. He shows no intelligence, only ruthlessness. His eyes are moist and heavily lidded, as if he were on drugs, although nothing like this is referenced. And he seems ill-equipped to command a military operation. Which might be part of the point, given the outcome.
The cast is OK and does its job, but no more; without question, several, if not all, of the actors in the Sturges film oozed far more attitude, charisma and sense of savvy. As it is, there’s a a bit too strong a whiff of modern guys grooving on getting in the saddle and whipping out their weapons.
While mostly shot in Louisiana, the film offers enough rocky vistas here and there to make the Far West setting convincing. Composer James Horner died before finishing the score, which was accomplished by his friend Simon Franglen. An eyebrow-raising and ear-perking moment occurs at the end, when the opening strains of Elmer Bernstein’s eternal score for the 1960 version blast from the soundtrack. For some, this will provide an all-too-vivid reminder of a film that’s better than the one they’ve just seen.
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Production companies: MGM, Columbia Pictures, Pin High, Escape Artists, Fuqua Films
Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard, Luke Grimes, Matt Bomer
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Screenwriters: Nic Pizzolatto, Richard Wenk, based on a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Producers: Roger Birnbaum, Todd Black
Executive producers: Walter Mirisch, Antoine Fuqua, Bruce Berman, Ben Waisbren
Director of photography: Mauro Fiore
Production designer: Derek R. Hill
Costume designer: Sharen Davis
Editor: John Refoua
Music: James Horner, Simon Franglen
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Lindsay Graham
Rated R, 132 minutes