“What we lost in the fire, we found in the ashes.”
Getting Antoine Fuqua for a remake of the John Sturgess’ classic 1960 Western The Magnificent Seven is an odd choice. It’s like getting David Ayer for a remake of The Searchers or something; it’s an American classic, why bother remaking it at all and why do it with a director primarily known for gritty urban action movies? But Fuqua pulls it off, creating something that not only honours the original but, like nearly all of his other films, is hell of a lot of fun at the same time. As this is a remake of the original Magnificent Seven, and that being a remake of Seven Samurai, there are a lot of levels of intertextuality here. So many in fact that this review will forgo many comparisons between them all and let Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven stand on its own two spur-adorned feet.
It’s almost a certainty that criticism will be levelled at the director and his film for falling squarely into the western homage bracket rather than something more ‘interesting’ like the revisionist bracket. Sure the film updates the cast with a wide range of ethnicities (and the non-white characters are probably the best characters in the film) but old school western stereotyping still rears its ugly head occasionally (although it’s refreshing to see a Native American character played by an actual Native American).The film hits familiar western beats like it’s checking them off a list. Small town in need of defending from ruthless business man: check. Beautiful desert vistas in the classic tawny colour palette: check. Weak female characters: check. But just because the film isn’t trying anything new within the western genre doesn’t mean it’s bad, in fact it’s incredibly refreshing to see a film that’s like the classic westerns of the 50’s and 60’s. The film doesn’t push boundaries or use the genre to have some deep nihilistic reflection upon itself; instead it’s just a fun throwback to a different era of film making. The visuals and action scenes have all been stepped up but the film is still enjoyably old fashioned.
The cast are the main draw here, made up of a varied assortment of actors. Denzel Washington is the face of the film, taking on the famous Yul Brynner role from the original film (with a name change; he’s now called Sam Chisolm). Chisolm is calm and collected; the ideal leader for a gang of wacky personalities. Denzel is playing ‘Denzel’, the stock action character crafted over years of work mainly in the late great Tony Scott’s films. But as we’ve seen in films like Tony Scott’s Déjà vu and Man on Fire, or the last Fuqua/Washington team up; The Equaliser, this is exactly what we pay to see. We also get a marketable face in Chris Pratt, whose rakish charm still hasn’t got old. He’s not quite the quip happy Peter Quill, although he gets a few good lines, rather being a more traditional bad ass in the vein of Steve McQueen (whose role in the original Magnificent Seven he’s taken on). Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio fill out the ranks as Confederate sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux and loopy mountain man Jack Horne. Hawke as Robicheaux is the best part of a very strong cast, delivering the most poignant performance as a man whose war horrors leave him reluctant to engage in gleeful acts of violence like the others. Hawke didn’t need to give this role his all, the cast is diverse enough that most people probably wouldn’t have noticed if he hadn’t, but he does anyway, and is the best part of the film because of it. D’Onofrio is also a highlight but for different reasons entirely. His strangely high pitched tracker, with a penchant for reciting bible verses as he slaughters his enemies, is so enjoyably wacky it feels like he’s in a completely different film to the restrained performance of Ethan Hawke. Both are great in their own ways and their clashing tones just makes the film more unique, emphasising the diversity in the eponymous seven, even though it might be understandably jarring to some. The other characters in the Seven are Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Vasquez, a roguish Mexican outlaw vying for Pratt’s crown as chief bad ass gunslinger, Martin Sensmeier as Red Harvest, a pleasingly awesome (and considerately well handled) Comanche warrior, and Byung-hun Lee as Billy Rocks, a knife-wielding Korean assassin and probably the coolest character in the film.
Fuqua does a good job of visually and thematically bringing back the fun old-fashioned horse operas of the golden age of Hollywood and a good portion of the film does resemble these. Sure, some of the classic western vistas are enhanced by CGI but the spirit of these films remain. Peter Sarsgaard as villainous businessman Bartholomew Bogue hams it up gloriously, transporting us back to a simpler time in films where the villain was just plain evil. True Detective helmer Nic Pizzolatto is on script duties and he sticks with keeping it old fashioned rather than his usual brand of existential nihilism. There are good number of jokes and witticisms in there (Vincent D’Onofrio is hilarious) and the relationships between the characters are great. Each one gets enough time to shine, and there isn’t the typical weak link found in most ensemble movies (ahem, Hawkeye in The Avengers). Mixed in with the classic western tropes and imagery is some awesome action too, reminiscent of other Fuqua films like Shooter and Olympus Has Fallen (in the best possible way). The entire final reel is one long action set piece, with the seven protecting the town of Rose Creek from Bogue’s army. In this sequence the film’s tone and visuals suddenly start to resemble a war movie rather than a western and Fuqua handles these scenes with the same level of aplomb. Fuqua gleefully pushes that 12A certificate allowing for some truly exciting action spectacle. People are blown up, stabbed, garroted, and most frequently of all; shot. It’s all extremely fun and retains Fuqua’s old school sensibilities with little CGI being used and most of the action achieved with old fashioned stunt work. Main characters are killed off surprisingly brutally too (a surprise even if you’ve seen the original film).
The Bottom Line: The Magnificent Seven doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, but you get the impression that was never Antoine Fuqua’s aim. From the visuals to the narrative to the stunts, it’s all refreshingly old school. The characters are all very cool, even if that badassery comes at the expense of character development. The action is especially fantastic with perhaps the best climax to any action movie all summer and the film is quite often visually stunning. Check out The Magnificent Seven on the biggest screen you can find; this is popcorn entertainment done right.