THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. 133 minutes. Rated M (Violence).
This ‘The Magnificent Seven’ is a remake of John Sturges’ 1960 Western of the same name (and rough premise), which was itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 epic ‘Seven Samurai’. In a year stuffed with reboots and remakes, I want to assess this film based solely on its own merits – not an easy task given the long shadow cast by its classic predecessors, but this will be my last mention of either film.
Antoine Fuqua’s recent output has been marked by stories about men performing justifiable, even noble, violence. Whether it be to protect the President of the United States (‘Olympus Has Fallen’), avenge an underage callgirl (‘The Equalizer’), or use boxing to overcome the death of a spouse (‘Southpaw’), Fuqua’s films take a brief look at masculinity and decide that’s its role should be one of protection through deeds. On this front, ‘The Magnificent Seven’ septuples the action, casting not one but seven male protagonists to help widowed beauty Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) rid the small, Wild West town Rose Creek of the scourge of a unscrupulous, murderous tycoon called Batholomew Bogue (a twitchy, remorseless Peter Sarsgaard).
Leading the men is Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington), a bounty hunter whose acquiescence to Emma’s request suggests he may have prior beef with Bogue. Washington clad in all black and performing horse-riding stunts at speed is a glorious sight to behold, and his volatile brand of scenery chewing suits the genre well. Second to join the crusade is gambler and gunslinger Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt). Pratt is never fully able to banish doubts that he doesn’t belong in the 1870’s (he’s too jokey and glib for the gritty sets), but gives a charismatic and funny performance nonetheless. They are joined by Confederate crack shot with performance issues, Goodnight Robicheaux (an excellent name accompanied by a committed performance from the ever-dependable Ethan Hawke) and his assassin partner Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee, the South Korean superstar trying on some slick martial arts moves). Further recruits include Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, a nice foil for Pratt), the hopefully-self-awarely monikered Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier, looking unbelievably graceful with a bow and arrow in hand), and gruff mountain man Jack Horne (Vincent D'Onofrio, terrifically physical, aptly described as a “bear wearin’ people’s clothes”). It’s tough to deliver character development for one protagonist let alone seven, but the film certainly does its utmost to create backstories and motivations for all.
The seven roll into Rose Creek while Bogue is out of town and clear out his 20-odd troop of remaining mercenaries. By ‘clear out’, I mean ‘dispatch with’, or ‘murder’, which they do in a brutal but bloodless, M-rated fashion. If it’s satisfying, gun-totin’ action that you’re after, you will be spoiled for choice, both here and in the climactic showdown, when Bogue returns with a veritable army in tow to take back his town from the seven and the townsfolk militia they’ve trained. Fuqua doesn’t have the same mastery of establishing geography as his betters in the Western genre (your Sergio Leones et al.), so the editing from John Refoua sometimes descends into confusion during gunfights, but there is something undeniably epic about charging masses of live horses and DP Mauro Fiore’s widescreen lensing of the Southern landscapes which haunt Western iconography. The score from James Horner and Simon Franglen (who stepped in after Horner’s untimely passing) isn’t exactly memorable (the reworked theme is still the most hummable tune), but its mixture of orchestral and tribal elements is a nice nod to the period. The diversity of the cast is also a big tick in our age of increasingly whitewashed blockbusters; that Washington, a black man, is one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars is not lost on this reviewer, nor on the screenwriters Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk, who pepper the narrative with references to race in what is a dark time for tolerance and harmony in the world.
Given the film’s setting, there are plentiful references to faith and God – much of the action even revolves in and around the church perched at the end of Rose Creek’s main street. However it’s more of a contextual nod than any real attempt to delve into the nature of faith in frontier living. Regardless, it is pleasing to see the townsfolk so concerned about the fate of their place of worship and their preacher.
The film is probably not going to become a classic. I know I said that I wouldn’t mention the earlier films, but it’s impossible not to here – their impact is too great to forget. However, it is a rollicking good time, and one that seems destined to be eminently watchable in future, the kind of film that if you flick past it on television at night, you will stay until the credits.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out September 29.