The Magnificent Seven
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Written by Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto, based on Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai
133 minutes, rated M
Three films, three different decades, three different outcomes. Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 Seven Samurai was a ballet in black and white about the need to oppose tyranny. The John Sturges remake from 1960 was more like an opera, driven by Elmer Bernstein’s brilliant score. If we continue the metaphor, Antoine Fuqua’s remake is a burlesque of the other two – a comic book founded on meaner principles and the lower expectations of our times.
It’s not terrible, so much as disappointing. Fuqua makes violent action pictures, but he made them with more nuance earlier in his career. Training Day was thoughtful, as well as hugely violent. His last five pictures – Shooter, Brooklyn’s Finest, Olympus Has Fallen, The Equalizer and Southpaw – were a mixed bag. Fuqua struggles with his desire to please audiences and still serve his artistic ambitions. Most of the time, art loses. In films like Shooter, Olympus Has Fallen and Southpaw, audiences lose too because there’s a certain contempt in making films so wantonly stupid.
This new ‘Mag 7’ brings back the two stars of Training Day, Ethan Hawke and Denzel Washington, the actor of choice for Fuqua. The casting carries a certain guarantee of quality. Denzel is almost bulletproof at the box office, crossing the racial divide in America with ease. Ethan Hawke has a strong integrity on screen. His part corresponds to the Robert Vaughn role in the 1960 film – a man having doubts about his gifts as a gunman.
Denzel plays the Yul Brynner role, the coolest gunfighter in the west, a bounty hunter named Sam Chisolm. The setting is a mining village called Rose Creek, somewhere like Colorado, in 1879. The land is green, rather than Mexican brown, and colour is very much an issue here. To go up against bad Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, chewing the scenery), Chisolm teams up with a rainbow coalition of unemployed gunmen. Chris Pratt is Faraday, a wise-cracking card sharp; Hawke is Goodnight Robicheaux, from down Louisiana way, who rides with Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), a master of the knife, gun and the stylish despatch of any foe; Manuel Garcia-Rulfo represents Mexico in this event and Martin Sensmeier, who’s Alaskan and indigenous, plays a Comanche warrior with the silly name of Red Harvest. Last but not slimmest is the former Indian fighter Jack Horne, played by Vincent D’Onofrio in furs. He attracts one of the film’s better lines – ‘I believe that bear is wearing people’s clothes’.
They are called to protect the good people of Rose Creek from Bogue’s army of cut-throats. Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), whose husband was gunned down by Bogue, leads the recruitment, in a revealing off-the-shoulder blouse that effectively conceals her grief. To summarise: there is no Mexican village, the motive is now vengeance rather than just protection, and the racial make-up is inverted so that a black man takes on a white villain, with the help of a cohort of many colours.
That kind of revisionism makes the film seem overly deliberate, rather than spontaneous, but Fuqua does not care for naturalism anyway. Nor did John Sturges or Kurosawa, but their stylisation was different. The manufacture of ‘cool’ was important then too. Could there have been anyone cooler than Toshiro Mifune as the comical pretender who becomes a great warrior, or James Coburn’s knife-throwing assassin? Even so, it helps the credibility if we believe in the coalition of interests between the seven, and Fuqua barely bothers with that. He’s more interested in the angles of carnage opened up by having a Comanche shoot arrows from the roof or a kung-fu fighter who dances as he despatches. That’s hardly unusual. Fuqua is a modern director in that sense, and sensitive to the new commercial realities – the winds from the east, as well as the higher body count required by a couple of generations of computer gamers.
On this score, the film excels. The extended finale offers hundreds of dead, with extreme prejudice. A number of large explosions punctuate the shooting and there is an uncomfortable number of horse falls within the mayhem. On that score, the film is less than modern. Let’s hope the American Humane Association did its job on the set.
The Magnificent Seven