Coming out with a remake in today’s movie climate is something of a risk; with the glut of remakes, reboots, and the general re-use of tired themes throughout Hollywood productions, the public and reviewers are growing less and less forgiving. Just look at the recent performances of movies such as Conan the Barbarian, Ben-Hur, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, films that languished either critically, financially, or both.
I mean, if you even tried to list out all the remakes/reboots that have been released in the past decade, you’d run out of paper. So, when Antoine Fuqua decided to try his hand at the classic redemption story The Magnificent Seven, he had to have known the risks, however, he also knew many of the elements of the original that made it appealing: the great ensemble cast and riveting action sequences being some of the most important of them. Unfortunately, despite Fuqua’s ability to absolutely nail the feel and excitement of a classic western such as The Magnificent Seven, he is unable to draw home for the viewers the intense and deep emotions drawn out by this story of bad men doing good things.
The original, itself an interpretation of a classic (Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai), combined a force in directing at the time in John Sturges with some of the most appealing actors the 1960s could offer, including Yul Brenner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn. The younger cast would notably go on to become stars and hallmarks of the film became its almost nihilistic sense of completion and the incredible, widely used soundtrack it produced. Fuqua completes the cycle in most of these areas; however, the sense of loss and redemption that suffused the classic (and its inspiration) is completely lost here.
However, that is not the fault of an amazing ensemble cast. Let’s start with Fuqua’s preferred actor Denzel Washington who played “Sam Chisolm”, a hardened, quiet but brutal bounty hunter struggling to seek justice for past misdeeds done to him. Washington takes this role and adds the same steely grit we’ve seen in Fuqua’s other films The Equalizer and Training Day, and he really does excel, becoming more of a joy to watch as the film proceeds. While this character does seem a bit one-dimensional, luckily there is a bevy of talent with him. Co-lead Chris Pratt might have just stolen the show as “Josh Farraday”, the gambler and cheat whose slyness and charm cannot be denied. Pratt runs away with this role, easily becoming the funniest character in the film as well as the most entertaining one. I found myself waiting for his lines, looking forward to whatever quip True Detective writer Nic Pizzolatto had lined up for him next. And while Pratt is a natural at these types of characters, the writing really supports him quite well. Ethan Hawke and Byung-hun Lee as the pair of “Goodnight Robicheaux” and “Billy Rocks” complement each other well, Hawke being the talkative rogue with plenty of demons (none of which are really delved into deeply enough) and Lee the mysterious foreigner with amazing knife skills (a role that, while stereotypical, is at least approached with some level of equality to the other leads). Vincent D’Onofrio turns in an inspired performance as tracker/trapper “Jack Horne”, a role you can tell he is having a lot of fun with. Martin Sensmeier portrays the Native American “Red Harvest” in a subdued but likeable role, while Manuel Garcia-Rulfo really fades into the background with cookie-cutter anti-hero “Vasquez” as his role, a Mexican outlaw with a few jokes but not much impact throughout the film.
My problem with these characters isn’t in their portrayal, but their lack of development. Having the lead be a black man is ripe with opportunities for real and impactful statements about race, even in the historic setting of the Wild West. However, this serves as a conflict for merely the opening scene, showing an overplayed trope of fear of otherness that isn’t really highlighted and becomes a confusing statement that seems included for the sake of explanation rather than development. Unfortunately, the same story goes for Lee’s character “Billy Rocks” and Sensmeier’s “Red Harvest”, as some racial epithets are used to display racial tension in only the most surface manner, and very little digging into the thematic is done besides that.
Aside from the spectacular performances and the subpar writing, this movie excels aesthetically. The soundtrack is the last one produced by James Horner who died during production, and brings to mind immediately all of the feeling of a true western immediately. It is at once reminiscent and engaging, not too derivative itself but nicely complementing the derivative story by really melding with the setting perfectly. And the landscape shots in this movie, good lord, the landscape shots! Straight out of the western playbook of wide ranges, setting suns, and waves of heat pouring across the landscape. The cinematography of this movie really nails the mood they are going for, and serves as one part of this movie that deserved an update.
Ultimately, this movie risks little, not providing many interesting subplots and letting its characters wallow in shallow characterizations. However, the ensemble cast is far too good to be ignored, and almost make up for the writing with their engaging, hilarious dialogue and stellar portrayals. While this movie doesn’t really offer anything new, it does serve as an amusing interpretation of a classic, despite not being able to hold a candle to either of its predecessors thematically. I left the theater wanting more: more depth to the characters, more expression of the struggle to redeem oneself, more exploration of why bad men can do great things. However, what I got was entertaining enough as a fun late summer action-comedy flick that will be enjoyed, but ultimately forgotten.
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