Review: The Magnificent Seven (2016)

The 1960 classic, The Magnificent Seven, has never been a film inconsideration for the title of “Greatest Western of All Time”. It isn’t as iconic and influential as Shane nor as intense or symbolic as High Noon. It lacks the epic expansiveness of The Searchers as well as the gritty, violent realism of The Wild Bunch. It failed to reinvent the genre or subvert expectations like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Unforgiven. Yet in spite of all that, I’ve long counted The Magnificent Seven among my favorite Western films, possibly my very favorite movie genre. The remake of Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai combined a talented cast, solid direction from John Sturges, and one of the most memorable film scores of all time to create a fun, exciting adventure with a surprising amount of depth. The new remake of the 1960 remake, therefore, has a lot to live up to, and when it adheres to its predecessor’s formula it largely succeeds, even in spite of a few missteps along the way.

It’s 1879, and the small town of Rose Creek is living under the thumb of Bartholomew Bogue, a mining baron who uses power, influence, money, and a strong helping of violence in his greed and desire to drive the simple townsfolk away. But when he massacres a group of civilians that dare stand up to him, in addition to burning down the town church, promising to return in three weeks to destroy the rest of the town unless they sell their land to him for next to nothing, Rose Creek decides it has had enough. The newly-widowed Emma gathers all that they have of value and heads to the nearest town in order to hire some help. Luckily for her she runs into Sam Chisolm, a warrant officer who just killed a wanted man in the middle of a saloon, who eventually agrees to recruit a band of men in order to protect Rose Creek from Bogue. Chisolm is eventually joined by a boastful gambler, a former Confederate sniper and his knife-throwing companion, a Mexican outlaw, a slightly-unhinged bear of a mountain man, and a Comanche warrior, and the seven return with Emma to clean the town of Bogue’s remaining lackeys and prepare its defense. With little time to spare, the eclectic group of misfits build traps and fortifications, make plans, and train the peaceful citizens of Rose Creek to be brave soldiers willing to kill. In the meantime they’ll have to wrestle with their own demons and reasons for accepting such a hopeless mission, knowing they all probably won’t survive but unaware of the overwhelming force Bogue is preparing to send against them.

The Magnificent Seven gets a lot of things right, starting with its cast. In the order I listed them above, the seven are played by Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Martin Sensmeier, and by and large they work well both as a team and individually. Washington is a perfect choice to lead the cast, perfectly at ease in both the tense moments and the humorous ones in between. Pratt makes a nice contrast, bringing humor and charm to the proceedings, and the pair play off each other nicely, even if their chemistry is vastly different in style and tone from that of Yul Brenner and Steve McQueen in the original Western. Ethan Hawke really surprised me, with his grizzled but boastful exterior and his scarred interior, while D’Onofrio is almost unrecognizable in a performance that’s genuinely bizarre and unexpected but which works. Lee, Garcia-Rulfo, and Sensmeier have considerably less to work with, unfortunately. Haley Bennett shines as Emma, making me wish that she’d had a larger role in the film, while Peter Sarsgaard is menacing and creepy as Bogue. As a side note, it’s great to see more diversity in the cast, but I can’t think of any reason why a few of the seven couldn’t have been women.

Director Antoine Fuqua has built a film that is largely faithful to the original, but which has a higher action quotient and which feels modern yet still classically Western. The movie wisely reuses dialogue, story beats, and even entire scenes from the 1960 film, while occasionally offering a twist on a familiar moment to keep things fresh, but it also finds ways to set itself apart with regards to the characters and the specifics of the story. To my great relief, this version of The Magnificent Seven is content to be a straightforward Western, adhering to the tropes and conventions of the genre rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. Fuqua clearly understands not only the appeal of the Western, but also how to make it feel relevant and exciting in today’s movie landscape. He’s helped along in that task with excellent production design, from the full town worth of sets to costuming that goes a long way towards fleshing out the characters, as well as superb stuntwork and a team that knows how to stage an action sequence. And to top it all off we’ve got the final work of the late, great James Horner, who delivers a subtle, quintessentially Western score that stands apart from the iconic work of Elmer Bernstein but which cleverly echoes the familiar rhythms of the 1960 original.

Despite its many strengths, this new take on The Magnificent Seven is sadly lacking in a few crucial areas, particularly when it comes to its script and story. This new version is a full five minutes longer than its predecessor, yet it’s surprisingly shallow and undeveloped. We barely get to know several members of the seven, they never develop a substantial connection to the town, nor does the film find the time to give each of them their own motivations and development as was done previously. Disappointingly, the villainous Bartholomew Bogue is almost laughingly one-dimensionally evil (who else would torch a church), especially compared to the complex and charismatic bandit played over fifty years ago by Eli Wallach. Wallach’s Calvera harassed the village out of necessity in order to survive and provide for his men, and he used intimidation and violence not out of a lust for power but with an underlying sense of fear of what might happen if he fails. You’ll get no soliloquies from Bogue about the poor state of charity in gaudy big-city churches or any attempts to understand the motives of the seven heroes. And most regrettably of all, the entire final act of the original film has been removed in the name of giving the movie an extended climactic battle sequence to end on. This robs the heroes of their crucial moment of choice and redemption that makes the original film so much more than just a shoot-em-up, and greatly diminishes the depth of the new version. In its place we have a final scene revelation that feels unearned and unimportant, and which undermines the flow of the finale. (It also unfortunately feels the need to saddle the battle with an overused trope from modern Westerns that probably bothers me more than the average viewer.)

The Magnificent Seven is still very enjoyable, especially if you can separate it from the original. It’s wonderfully classical Western that doesn’t feel the need to reinvent the wheel. It’s got the stunning vistas, thrilling gunfights, soaring music, and the atmosphere you expect from the genre, it pays homage to the original in just the right ways, and it infuses humor and action that allows it to feel fresh. The film’s biggest strength has to be its diverse cast, which brings a variety of styles and characterizations to their roles. And while its script lets the movie down at times, particularly when it comes to sacrificing story for action or depth for spectacle, the fact remains that this is the sort of movie that rarely gets made these days. True Westerns have been few and far between lately, with most big releases either trying to subvert or reimagine the genre, or else parody it, while smaller films may just simply not be very good. As far as recent Western remakes go, The Magnificent Seven is more on the level of 3:10 to Yuma than something as excellent as True Grit (and nowhere near my favorite Western of this century, Open Range), its existence still makes me happy. I can only hope its success at the box office leads one day to a revival of the genre. That would be truly magnificent.

B+

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