Seven times the fun
While some people may think I have an abject hatred of remakes, I really only despise remakes that take the original’s story and do nothing interesting it with it character-wise, technical-wise, or even genre-wise. After all, Scarface, The Wizard of Oz (1939), and The Thing are all excellent remakes to previous source material and found ways to surpass their originals. And sometimes you get a remake that’s on par with the original as it was with the 1960 version of The Magnificent Seven with Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, essentially a cowboy version of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. And while I think Samurai is the better film, the cowboy remake still holds up quite well.
The story in both films was simple: a rural town is being terrorized by a gang of outlaws, so some villagers hire seven mercenaries to train the town and assist them in beating back the criminals. It’s a simple story allowing people to tell it in their own unique ways with varying characters (like Tiny Toon Adventures), comedic timing (like A Bug’s Life), and even a completely different time period (the immortal Battle Beyond the Stars). So it didn’t surprise me that Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Tears of the Sun, Olympus has Fallen, and The Equalizer) wanted to make another version of the tale, this time based off the cowboy riff. So how did he do? Well, the man’s strength as a director comes from making interesting riffs on machismo that doesn’t come off as grating and even hits some badass moments…but doesn’t quite work well completely. What do I mean by that? Let’s take a look at the characters and see where it goes…
We’ve got Haley Bennett (as Jennifer Lawrence clone 48-Alpha) who plays a woman who’s husband got killed by Peter Sarsgaard’s Bart Bogue, a villain somehow even more cartoonish than Snidely Whiplash. Bogue wants control of Bennett’s entire town, so offers each family $20 to get the hell out or he’ll execute all of them. And to make it clear he’s not fucking around, he not only kills Bennett’s husband (Matt Bomer in a criminally underused role) but has his Native friend tomahawk a lady and has his men randomly kill a few people. Why? To get the gold medal in being an absolute bastard. Seriously, there’s no goddamn reason for how far Bogue goes. Even Saddam Hussein would tell this guy to take a chill pill, that’s how absurd he is.
Anyways, with the threat hanging over the town like a sword of Damacles, Bennett enlists the help of Denzel Washington’s Sam Chisolm, bad ass bounty hunter who may be familiar with Bogue’s tactics. He in turn assembles a team of rogues ranging from a gambling drunk (Chris Pratt); a sharpshooter suffering major PTSD from the Civil War (Ethan Hawke); a knife wielding assassin (Byung-hun Lee); a soft-spoken, God-fearing, absolutely vicious tracker (Vincent D’Onoforio), a Comanche warrior named “Red Harvest” (Martin Sensmeier), and a Mexican bandit (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). And if those sound like straight up archetypes than actual characters…congrats, you get a cookie.
While some of these characters get a little more development than others, they really have only one personality trait: badass. That’s it. And while there’s plenty to criticize for this omission (namely the seven never really bond with each other or the townsfolk), it’s somewhat abated by the actors’ ability to sneeze charisma. What I mean is that each actor just acts so confidently, with pitch perfect swagger and a few one liners, that you can almost forget there’s not much going on between the characters. Almost.
See this is where I bring up another film that gets character interaction in an action film right, and if you’ve been reading my critiques, you know where I’m going. Yes people, once again I get to trot out the Fast and Furious series as the prototypical example of ensemble casts working well in an action movie. Like this version of The Magnificent Seven, the Fast and Furious doesn’t have much in the way of character development but the Furious movies have much more in the vein of character interaction. The characters banter, they joke with each other and flesh out their personalities that way. It’s what helps audiences identify with the characters and want to root for them. Otherwise, you just don’t care what happens to any of them.
And for a remake of The Magnificent Seven, that’s a big cock-up, especially if you know (tiny spoiler for a fifty year-old film) not ALL of the Seven survive the ordeal. So the deaths don’t have the impact the way they did in Seven Samurai and the original 1960 flick. But I’m not down on these characters entirely; after all I still liked them, if only for more superficial reasons. Let me cut the big word talk and get down to brass tactics, I liked the Seven in this movie because they look and act cool as shit. That’s it. And sometimes that’s fine, but it really only works if you have great actors who can pull that trick off.
Thankfully we do here, particularly from Denzel Washington playing Denzel Washington in a cowboy hat. He’s calculating, calm under pressure, and absolutely defiant to the absurdly cartoonish villain we have. Take his Alonzo character from Training Day and mix it his character from American Gangster to get an idea where he’s going with it. The second of the cast to get more exposure than the rest is Chris Pratt who is unsurprisingly good (to anyone who saw Guardians of the Galaxy) at playing a smooth talking rogue who’s not nearly as classy as he thinks he is. He gets the biggest laughs and probably owning my favorite sequences and one liners from the film as a whole. He has a lot more to do here that he did in Jurassic World; but like that forgettable film, his charisma is more important than anything he’s saying.
Only Ethan Hawke manages to take the bronze in getting any fleshing out and it’s only in service to his “Han Solo” moment in the climax. A plot point that may have carried more weight if Hawke wasn’t on every single freaking poster and trailer as one of the Seven badasses saving the town, so you know he’s coming back regardless of whatever his character says. Oh yeah, his whole deal with PTSD is introduced and quickly forgotten about by the end of the film, so it’s inclusion is entirely vistigil. All the other actors turn in fine performances, even getting out a good joke and cool looking moment by the end of the flick; although D’Onoforio opts for an oft-putting, high-pitch teddy bear voice that spouts Bible verses while viciously murdering people…so that’s a plus I guess. I know some people may have wished for a bit more conflict from a racially diverse class (I mean this is the Old Western America, wasn’t exactly a great time for civil rights). Quite frankly, I enjoyed the diversity and it’s nice change of pace from other, far shitier films that employ mostly white actors to portray Egyptian Gods including Gerard Butler in a heavy Scottish accent Jesus Fucking Christ.
While the characters were only halfway decent, Antoin Fuqua’s eye for directing solid action set pieces helps bump the film up from the annals of forgettable. Delivering a higher body count than the original, and employing the benefits of modern pyrotechnics and camera angles; Fuqua is able to craft a final stand that can be considered apart from the original and is able to be enjoyed as its own unique entry. Just like a remake freaking should. The film moves along at a brisk pace compared to better Western films, but it gets you to where you want to be: the last stand to end all last stands where bullets fly, people die, and horses get blown the hell up. And while it’s absurd and at times tacky, it brought me around to something I can recommend to action-aficionados.
Would have wished for a bit more work on the script side (a punch up writer like Shane Black could have done wonders here), but as it stands we have a mostly enjoyable movie that I wouldn’t mind seeing again. Most definitely as a RENTAL, but if you’re interested in seeing this in theaters, I’d give this a solid…