The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Justice has a number

In 1960, watching a rowdy bunch of outlawed bandits ally to fight for a common cause was considered something of a rarity, John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven — which (itself) was an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 Japanese-language film, Seven Samurai — standing as a rootin’ tootin’ time at the movies, the (now) ageless classic (then) redefining the cinematic Wild American West. But with President Obama seemingly about to gallop off into the sunset, images of a racially diverse redeemer in the untamed West aren’t as radical as they once might have been, even if it’s African American Denzel Washington who’s donning the Stetson and cowboy boots. So, with no actual subtext or reasons as to why this new The Magnificent Seven exists, the remake (or should I say update) simply comes across as unnecessary. An ethnic hero in the Great American Frontier — we’ve sorta been there, done that: remember, it wasn’t all too long ago that Quentin Tarantino cast Jamie Foxx as the titular gunslinger, Django, in Django Unchained (2012).

Horsing Around
Horsing Around

As a rule of thumb, I’d say don’t mess with the classics … well, not unless you’ve got something unique or innovative to add — case in point, Ben Hur (2016) — the revamp almost never living up to its (usually) superior counterpart. But hey, with all this in mind, the latest actioneer from able director Antoine Fuqua — his first ever Western — is a competent enough entertainer, this contemporary re-vision going for an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t fit-it approach, Fuqua gunning to introduce millennials to the infamous band of do-good scoundrels known as the Magnificent Seven.

Set in 1879, the film opens up on the peaceful mining town of Rose Creek, which (as it turns out) has been descended upon by a bully-type industrialist named Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), whose villainous band of henchmen are looking to drive the locals off their land in order to dig for gold. Turning the settlement into something of warzone — Bogue torching the local church to show that he means business — the desperate and scared folk fear the worst, until a ‘ballsy’ young woman, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), decides to employ compassionate outlaw Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) to round up a troop of renegade ‘hired guns’ in order to help the people fight back — seven multi-ethnic freedom fighters are assembled: there’s (of course) bounty hunter Sam Chisolm, charismatic gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), knife expert and assassin Billy Rocks (Byung-Hun Lee), ‘desperado’ Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), a Native American Comanche warrior. As the seven prepare the townsfolk for the inevitable bloody showdown — bonding both as a unit and with the community they’ve come to liberate — the mercenaries soon find themselves fighting for more than just loot.

'Reach for the sky!'
‘Reach for the sky!’

With a screenplay by Richard Wenk, The Equalizer (2014), and True Detective (2014) scribe Nic Pizzolatto, The Magnificent Seven is pretty straight-forward, story-wise (the narrative treading a familiar path); but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a rip-roaring fun time to be had, Fuqua and his filmmaking team hatching a well-crafted old-school shoot-em’-up that’s bound to thrill. The action is tense — the movie rather violent, too, considering it has a PG-13 rating (M here in Australia) — with a no-holds-barred third act showpiece that features some solid stunt work, top-notch practical effects, a rising body count and one big-ass Gatling gun; though, I don’t know about that jarring final scene — you’ll know what I mean when you see it. Attempting to stand on its own two feet, The Magnificent Seven does (at least) deviate from its predecessor, bar the odd reference or two — this latest offering is witter, pacier and gutsier than Sturges’ picture — and it’s not until the bumper credits that filmmakers (momentarily) nod to the revered original, the iconic Elmer Bernstein theme thundering over the cast recap; and it’s here that nostalgia finally hits.

A clear fan of the genre, Fuqua ensures that each frame is photographed with dusty and gritty high-contrast visuals, the film leaving no stone unturned when it comes archetypal Western tropes — from gaudy gun play to boisterous bar brawls and of course hastened horseback riding. The Magnificent Seven also marks the last official score by legendary composer James Horner, Titanic (1997), who tragically lost his life in an airplane crash in June of 2015, with Horner’s long-time associate, musician Simon Franglen, stepping in to complete the piece.

The Magnificent Wide Shot
The Magnificent Wide Shot

However, it’s ultimately the performances and the spirited chemistry between a handful of the seven that make this gung-ho Old West show truly worth one’s time, the smaller intimate moments just as powerful as the explosive stand-offs. Denzel Washington — in his third pairing with Fuqua — is magnetic as Sam Chisolm, a warrant officer from Wichita, Kansas, who saddles up to lead this vigilante posse, Washington’s steely presence casting a vice-like grip that unwittingly drags the audience along for the ride. Reunited with Washington for the first time since their electrifying pairing in 2001’s Training Day, Ethan Hawke is ‘good’ as Goodnight Robicheaux, a traumatized Confederate greyback who’s drowning in anguish and fear — think a lawless man with post-traumatic stress disorder — while the ever-charming Chris Pratt, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), does his usual wise guy shtick as Josh Faraday, the 37-year old star working as the flick’s comic relief. Elsewhere, an almost unrecognizable Vincent D’Onofrio, Jurassic World (2015), is amusing as the gang’s wild card, mountain man Jack Horne, whose outward appearance is that of ‘a bear in people’s clothes.’

Alas, the remaining members of the rag tag team aren’t given too much development and thus spend a majority of their screen time chewing up the scenery. Given that this reluctant antihero line-up is made up of mixed-race peeps from diverse (and somewhat conflicting) walks of life, there’s a unusual lack of friction here — we have an East Asian immigrant (Lee), a Mexican (Garcia-Rulfo) and an American Indian (Sensmeier) partnered with a lawman (Washington), a high-rolling risk taker (Pratt), a war veteran (Hawke) and a mountaineer (D’Onofrio): how do they instantly all just get along without any bickering or backstabbing?

'Hold ya horses ... '
‘Hold ya horses … ‘

For me though, it’s the sheer despair of Emma Cullen, a strong, sassy and sensitive frontierswoman played by stunning up-and-comer Haley Bennett, Music and Lyrics (2007) — did I mention she was stunning? — that really hits the bullseye, Bennett’s earnestness hammering on the heartstrings and supplying the story with its emotional center. And of course, no horse opera would be complete without its fearsome rattlesnake, Peter Sarsgaard, Lovelace (2013), making for a gleefully detestable trigger-happy antagonist, the cowardice tyrant Bartholomew Bogue — even if his character is slightly one-note.

Judging the film on its own merits, this Magnificent Seven re-imagining, while a tad irrelevant, is a rousing, rollicking crowd-pleaser. Look, it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, nor does it live up to the ‘magnificence’ of its title, but The Magnificent Seven still makes for a darn good popcorn yarn, if you ask me!

3.5 / 5 – Great

Reviewed by S-Littner

The Magnificent Seven is released through Sony Pictures Australia