A bully takes over a town, and the frustrated townspeople hire gunslingers to protect them. It’s the story told in the classic western THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), itself a remake of an even better movie, Akira Kurosawa’s THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954).
So, you’d hope that the folks behind this latest remake would offer audiences something new. After all, if you’re going to remake a movie, wouldn’t you want to put your own stamp on it, to make it stand out as your own? And that’s the biggest problem I had with this new version of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016): it doesn’t give us anything new or stand on its own.
The biggest culprit? A screenplay that never really gets to the heart of the matter. In spite of the solid acting and crisp clear directing, the story never really moves beyond the superficial.
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN opens with a baddie named Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) terrorizing a small town in the old west. He’s buying off the people’s land at ridiculously low prices, and if they won’t sell, well, his army of bandits will simply kill them. And when some of the townsfolk object, that’s exactly what they do.
One of the men killed is the husband of Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), a feisty woman who then sets out to hire gunslingers to free their town from Bogue’s clutches. She meets a hired gun named Chisolm (Denzel Washington) and he turns her down until he hears the name of the man she wants stopped, Bogue, and then he changes his mind. Chisolm and Bogue obviously share some history, which we learn about later in the story.
Chisolm rounds up a team of men to join him, with the total number eventually reaching seven. They then spend the rest of the movie preparing to defend the town, setting things up for the obligatory climactic confrontation.
As you can see, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN tells a very simple story, and for a movie like this to work, it needs to be carried by strong characters and a lively script, neither of which are in this movie.
The characters are okay and the actors are all solid in their roles, but they’re all very plain and straightforward. None of them are particularly memorable. Only Vincent D’Onofrio stands out as the high-pitched soft spoken trapper Jack Horne. D’Onofrio gives Horne something the other characters all lack: a personality. He’s the one memorable character in the whole lot.
I’m a big Denzel Washington fan, going back to his early years with films like CRY FREEDOM (1987) all the way through to today, although some of his recent films have been lukewarm. Washington is fine here, but there’s just not a lot to Chisolm. He’s a cool customer, not saying a whole lot, but unlike Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, we don’t really see Chisolm back up his persona with action, and what little he has to say is flat out dull.
Chris Pratt plays the lively gambler Josh Faraday, and it looks like Pratt is having a good time, but the problem with Faraday is nearly every line he spews is a cliche. It’s the type of role James Garner would have played, but Garner would have anchored the charm with some realism, and Pratt doesn’t give Faraday anything that is even resembling real.
Ethan Hawke is Goodnight Robicheaux, and the most memorable thing about him is his name. Hawke is another actor I usually enjoy, but the role he’s playing here is shallow and underdeveloped. The same can be said for Robicheaux’s buddy Billy Rocks, played by Byung-hun Lee.
As I said, Vincent D’Onofrio is the one guy who stands out from the rest here, as the burly trapper Jack Horne. He also gives Chris Pratt’s Faraday one of the better lines in the movie when he says of Jack, “I do believe that bear was wearing people clothes.”
And the seven are rounded out by a Mexican gunman named Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and a Native American named Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). Both of these characters are like the other five: solid but unremarkable.
I also wasn’t overly impressed by Haley Bennett as Emma Cullen. She sure looks feisty with her heated stares at the camera, but again I’ll blame the script. We know very little about Emma, and she remains largely in the background while the seven do their thing, rather than being in the middle of the action.
The one other actor who does make an impression is Peter Sarsgaard as the dastardly villain Bartholomew Bogue, but that all happens in the opening sequence of the movie. Sarsgaard struts his stuff in the opening scene, making for a very dark character, giving the film a rather chilling start. But then he disappears for the remainder of the movie, and when he returns for the climactic battle, he remains in the background,reduced to reaction shots as his army goes toe to toe with the seven. So, unfortunately, Sarsgaard is hardly a major factor in this movie, since his best scene is the first one.
Director Antoine Fuqua , who also directed Denzel Washington in THE EQUALIZER (2014) and the film which won Washington as Oscar, TRAINING DAY (2001), does a serviceable job here. I mean, the action scenes are clear and crisp, but they don’t wow. The cinematography is adequate, but it didn’t blow me away. This wild west is nowhere near as grand or picturesque as the west captured by the likes of John Ford and Howard Hawks.
Fuqua also glosses over one of the more interesting parts of the story: the training of the townspeople to defend themselves. There are a few fleeting scenes of our magnificent seven teaching these folks the art of self-defense, but there was so much more that could have been done. It’s a missed opportunity in a movie that was begging for some captivating sequences.
And while the shoot-outs and fights are professionally shot— heh heh— they are way too sanitizied and neat. First off, the film is rated PG-13, and so for the countless unfortunates who are shot, stabbed, blown up, what have you, there’s not a drop of blood anywhere. Not that I want to see a gory bloodbath, but when things are as neat and tidy as they are in this movie, it takes away from the strength of the story.
The bigger drawback with the action scenes is that they are all so orderly. There’s no sense of panic or pandemonium. Take the climactic battle between the seven and the townsfolk and the army of villains. There are people running everywhere, and yet everyone knows exactly who to shoot, without question. It’s so precise you’d think they were wearing sports jerseys with their names on them, like having “Team Bogue” printed on their backs. This is an all out war, people are being shot and blown up, and yet there’s no horror whatsoever associated with it, which really limits the story.
The best action sequence is when Chisolm and company first arrive in the town and put a big hurt on the thugs stationed there. This dramatic sequence works well. By contrast, the movie’s ending is nowhere near as riveting.
Again, the biggest culprit to this one being mediocre is its screenplay by Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto, which surprised me because Wenk has written screenplays for films I’ve really enjoyed, movies like the remake of THE MECHANIC (2011) with Jason Statham, and the Sylvester Stallone all-star actioner THE EXPENDABLES 2 (2012), which I thought was the best of that series.
The screenplay to THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN tells a straightforward story without many surprises. There are the occasional witty lines, but I’d hardly call it a lively script. Plus it’s all so predictable, with the ending to this one never being in doubt.
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is a by the numbers western that never rises above its material or puts a distinctive stamp on the genre.
It’s not bad, but for a movie called THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, there’s nothing all that magnficent about it. Perhaps it should have been called THE STRAIGHTFORWARD SEVEN.