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The Magnificent Seven

September 23, 2016
The Magnificent Seven

It feels like we just asked this a few weeks ago with Ben-Hur, which has already come and gone leaving nary a trace, but who felt that they just had to go back and remake The Magnificent Seven? What was wrong with John Sturges’ 1960 version? Or, for that matter, what was wrong with Sturges’ own source, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai?

As for Kurosawa the answer is still “nothing”, but as it turns out there’s still something worth squeezing out of this story in an Old West setting. For one thing, changing the town’s antagonist from a convenient pack of banditos to robber-baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) does add a little thematic heft, especially these days. Bogue has bought a mine next to the town, and he’s running it with little concern for its effects on the farmers’ land. “This country has always identified democracy with capitalism,” he tells them as a mouthpiece for co-writer Nic Pizzolatto, “and capitalism with God.”

Unfortunately there’s little follow-through to this idea, and it informs little else we see. Pizzolatto shares script credit with Richard Wenk, who co-wrote disposable action like The Mechanic and The Expendables 2 for Simon West, and The Equalizer for Antoine Fuqua, who directs here as well. And most of The Magnificent Seven is classic action-Wenkery.

After Bogue exerts his muscle in the town, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) sets out to hire someone to help defend the town. She finds bounty hunter Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington), who enlists gambler Josh Farraday (Chris Pratt). On the way back to the town they pick up Chisholm’s old buddy Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his companion Billy Rocks (Lee Byung-hun), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), devout mountain man Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), and lone Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier).

Most of these men have some sort of back-story, hinted at in offhand lines during calmer parts of the movie. And like Bogue’s political symbolism they’re largely immaterial. The seven return to the village and roust out the small contingent guarding it. And then, as in both other versions, they set to training the villagers and preparing to defend the town as best they can when Bogue returns in force.

Other than the skirmish when retaking the town, everything is setup for the extended battle sequence. Despite a few feints, this isn’t really a movie that delves into ideas or meaning. It does, however, offer some solid character work from the more recognizable faces, and the bits of back-story help flesh that out. It can get a bit heavy-handed when setting up Robicheaux as an echo of Robert Vaughn’s character from the 1960 version, and again when Chisholm dumps an eye-rolling load of exposition right at the end. But for the most part their characters are revealed as they should be in an action movie: through their actions.

Despite running over two hours, The Magnificent Seven doesn’t drag or feel padded. It does seem like there may have been more dramatic character work in the script that got cut out to keep the focus on the action. That’s always a tough hair to split, and despite wanting to know more about Billy or Vasquez or Red Harvest, I think Fuqua got the balance as good as he could this time.

The one truly sour note — at least for purists of the story — comes at the very end. In turning the story more towards the action, Fuqua, Wenk, and Pizzolatto have buried the moral along with the fallen gunmen. Emma’s closing monologue focuses on the valor and sacrifice of the seven, declaring them “magnificent” at last, but never mentions the most important victors in the fight: the farmers.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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