The pairing of director Antoine Fuqua and star Denzel Washington has been a great one in the past, obviously with the actor's lone Best Actor win for Training Day. That film was about a bad man serving under the guise of doing good, and Denzel let loose with the hardest performance of his career. At least until The Magnificent Seven, in which he dons a black hat, rides a black horse, fires a pair of black guns, and screams "King Kong ain't got shit on me!" Okay, maybe not that last part but if he did it wouldn't be the least bit surprising. The remake of John Sturges' 1960 Western classic, itself a redo of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, is little more than a chance for Denzel to be the baddest black man ever to spray bullets in the Old West.
You shouldn't be surprised to learn that Denzel Washington as a badass gunslinger is amazingly cool, and enough to make The Magnificent Seven an enjoyable if overlong experience. How is it that Clint Eastwood's Sully is 96-minutes and this is somehow 133? These things should be reversed. Anyhow, Fuqua's film lacks the nuances of either Sturges or Kurosawa's movies, the idea that these are bad men risking everything for a slim chance at redemption. Revenge and a good one-liner are all that matters now, making for an experience that is visually thrilling but fires blanks emotionally.
Almost nothing has been changed in terms of plot. The late 19th-century mining town of Rose Creek is under the thrall of a villainous robber baron named Bogue, played by Peter Saarsgard who always looks like a villain now. He used to be so boringly normal-looking. Bogue has designs on a gold mine that the town is standing in the way of, and when the townspeople refuse to get out of the way, he guns a few of them down, especially the dissenters. It's then that the fiery Hannah Cullen (Haley Bennett, making the most of a stock role) the wife of a recent victim of Bogue's murderous tendencies, gathers up the town's money and seeks help. The first person she enlists to fight Bogue and his men is Sam Chisolm (Washington), a "warrant officer" and nomadic lawman with a tragic past and a quick trigger finger. His internal torment makes him agree to Hannah's suicide mission, his temperament has him dispatching anybody who looks at him funny.
Normally the best part of any team-up flick is the recruitment phase, but the film breezes through it so fast you barely notice it happening. Chisolm enlists the aid of devilish rogue Faraday (Chris Pratt), old friend Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), his knife-throwing associate Billy Rocks (Lee Byung-hun), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), exiled Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), and high-pitched mountain man Jack Horne (Vincent D'Onofrio). Considering the ethnic dynamics at play here, none of these guys would be caught together in real life, but the film offers up just enough of an excuse to plausibly explain why they would now. A black man, a Mexican, and a Native American coming together to fight against oppression is about where any contemporary commentary stops. Oh wait, scratch that. They're fighting for revenge. Hannah told us so...
“I seek righteousness, as should we all. But I’ll settle for revenge!”
While Kurosawa and Sturges' films played up the life-or-death stakes expertly, the screenplay by True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto and The Equalizer's Richard Wenk is looking for this to be a light and enjoyable ride. Sorry, there won't be any philosophizing on masculinity in the Old West, which we might expect from Pizzolatto. So much of the film leans on the jokey, somewhat off-color camaraderie between the reluctant defenders that there's no doubt how things will play out. Much of the humor comes from Faraday, a literal wild card who lulls his enemies with humor and magic tricks. When Vasquez joins the crew his first remark is, "Oh good, we got a Mexican". The best visual gags are at the expense of Jack Horne, a grizzly bear of a man who sounds like the high talker from that episode of Seinfeld.
“I believe that bear is wearing people clothes", remarks Faraday.
Fuqua's knack for masculine action sequences is put on full display in the climactic battle against Bogue's army, a fight that takes up nearly the entire second half of the film. As one shootout after another erupts in the dust-covered town you get to watch these fatalistic men crack-wise while gunning down the enemy. The bullets fly fast and men drop faster than a cowpoke runs to the dinner bell. While individual scenes are thrilling there isn't anything particularly novel about any of it.The magnificent ones take to their individual skills (which is really their entire personality) to try and stay alive. Billy Rocks hurls his knives with deadly accuracy, the reluctant Robicheaux is good from a distance, and Faraday supplies the requisite amount of trickery. Standard course for any epic shootout are two things: dynamite and the game-changing Gatling gun. Both make appearances here and both blow shit up quite nicely.
Not everybody makes it out alive and some may be surprised at which ones do. It's one of the few twists audiences can expect as The Magnificent Seven isn't looking to re-examine the genre. There have been enough Westerns doing that lately with only a few being very good at it. At least Fuqua, Washington, and Co. have set their sights on an achievable target: simple entertainment. And taking aim at that The Magnificent Seven doesn't get a bulleye but at least it hits the target.
Rating: 3 out of 5