While “elegant” might not be the first word used to describe John Sturges’ classic western “The Magnificent Seven,” it’s certainly an adjective that seems like a worthy descriptor, especially when watching Antoine Fuqua’s contemporary take on the tale that started with Akira Kurosawa’s peerless “Seven Samurai.” Sturges’ film, much like Kurosawa’s, was as much about humility as it was about heroism, a band of rogues fighting for a just cause, even if certain death was an outcome more than one would face. Fuqua makes use of those same ingredients, but with none of the grace of Sturges or Kurosawa, concocting a remake that fulfills the standard requirements of a blockbuster in 2016 resulting in a picture that’s bigger, louder, and dumber than its source inspiration. When Chris Pratt’s Faraday remarks, “I’ve always wanted to blow something up,” it feels a like directive from an MGM executive’s vision for the movie. The basic set-up stays the same here: Rose Creek, a small town of humble farmers, have come under the thumb of a very bad man, in this case, Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). What was nothing more than a fantasy for Brad Dexter’s Harry Luck in Sturges’ movie is very real here — Rose Creek is sitting adjacent to gold that Bogue wants extract with his mining company. Unlike Eli Wallach’s Calvera, whose villainy was driven by a need to provide for his men, Bogue wants to build an empire worthy of the Rockefellers for himself, and the mine at Rose Creek is part of the equation. The men who stand by his side aren’t there out of loyalty, they’re simply well paid. But they get the job done, and when the threats turn into actual murder, the newly widowed Hannah Cullen (Haley Bennett) and Teddy (Luke Grimes) seek out their own hired guns to save their town.
The first man to accept the job is Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), who in turn rounds up an ethnically diverse gang — including Faraday, Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), and Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) — with enough plausible reasoning provided to explain why in 1879 America (just over a decade since the Civil War, and while Native Americans are still being chased from their land) they would all be fine teaming up together. And while this olive branch to reflecting the worldwide audience this film is being sold to is somewhat appreciated, it’s ultimately lip service in the end, as all seven remain trapped in one-dimensionally drawn characters. Thankfully, the roles aren’t simply retreads of the parts in Sturges’ film, but there a couple of details — The Guy Who Is Good With Knives, The Guy Who’s Lost His Nerve — that are carried over, but not expanded upon. However, one thing they all have in common is unwavering bravery and courage, each armed with an infallible skillset.
In fact, where Sturges’ film at least toyed with the notion of failure, that the assembled “magnificent seven” might be wholly ill-prepared, Fuqua’s film has the suicide squad first arrive in town, get into a gunfight with Bogue’s men, and celebrate the victory by counting off how many they shot dead. It’s a macho moment that’s only a taste in a film that leads up to one massive, climactic battle that takes up nearly a quarter of the running time. For this, Fuqua brings to the table lots of cool shots of good looking actors pulling off spectacularly choreographed action moves, but the entire sequence is tedious, when it’s not veering laughably over-the-top. “There were horses, and a man on fire, and I killed a guy with a trident,” Steve Carell’s Brick Tamland quips after an intentionally outrageous street fight in “Anchorman.” Only one of those three things doesn’t happen in “The Magnificent Seven,” but if someone got killed with a trident, I wouldn’t have been surprised. However, it is a bit surprising that in this era of studios opting for brand viability versus actual narrative stakes, Fuqua is allowed to sacrifice some of the seven much like Sturges before him, but even these moments are over amplified, pumped up with Simon Franglen and the late James Horner’s obnoxiously bombastic score, that only competes with gun shots and things that go boom for volume in the sound mix.
Bearing screenplay credits by Richard Wenk (“16 Blocks,” “The Equalizer,” “The Mechanic“) and Nic Pizzolatto (“True Detective“), “The Magnificent Seven” definitely leans towards the sensibilities of the former rather than the latter. You won’t find much of the philosophical musing from Pizzolatto’s hit HBO series here, except maybe from D’Onofrio’s personification of late-era Orson Welles with a squeaky voice, though most of the time it seems he’s walked in from an entirely different movie, with dialogue he seemingly made up on the spot. But at the end of the day, the movie is really Denzel’s show, and everything is ultimately tailored around his character and performance. More crucially, Fuqua’s film — for all the star power, for all the eye-rolling one liners (Steve McQueen’s “so far, so good” anecdote from the original gets turned into a repeated quip), for all the very expensive pyrotechnics — it isn’t very fun. Sturges’ film was imbued with loose playfulness, a quality that’s entirely absent here. There’s no particular chemistry between the cast, even with the reunion of “Training Day” duo Washington and Hawke (who only share a scene or two together). Meanwhile, Chris Pratt once again exercises his ability at playing Chris Pratt, but the schtick is quickly wearing out its welcome.
It would be too easy to say “The Magnificent Seven” isn’t magnificent. It’s definitely not, but the film has an even more egregious quality: it’s uninspired. There’s no risk, no real attempts to subvert expectations, and no desire to truly give the audience something, if not entirely new, then at least surprising. “The Magnificent Seven” hires plenty of top level talent, but it turns out they’re all firing blanks. [D]