On the heels of a summer of remakes nobody wanted or asked for (Ghostbusters, Ben-Hur, Pete’s Dragon), we have The Magnificent Seven, a light but entertaining shoot ‘em up that will never reach the iconic status of the 1960 movie of the same name or Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, but will provide a fun diversion for a couple of hours.
In director Antoine Fuqua’s latest iteration, the bandits stealing food from a village of farmers are replaced by an evil gold mining company trying to steal the land. Emma (Haley Bennett), wife of a murdered villager, sets off to hire some defenders, and with the help of Chisolm (Denzel Washington), manages to assemble a band of western archetypes, including a wise-cracking gambler/sleight of hand artist (Chris Pratt), a confederate sharpshooter (Ethan Hawke), a gun/knife master (Byung-hun Lee), a Mexican outlaw (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), an Indian (Martin Sensmeier), and a mountain man the size of a mountain (Vincent D’Onofrio).
With a week to prepare, the gunmen lead the villagers in fortifying the town, laying some traps, and making some near futile attempts at teaching a bunch of farmers to shoot. Except for Emma. Turns out she’s the one person in the village who’s a crack shot with a rifle. Go figure.
Viewed on its own, in a vacuum, this movie comes off as an entertaining western, if formulaic and predictable. There’s fancy gunplay, but nothing more outlandish than Hollywood has been feeding us for decades. At least we occasionally see the boys take the time to reload. There’s not a lot of character development, but there is some, and most of the gunmen are fleshed out just enough to avoid being mere copy and paste stock western characters. The defensive plans are tactically sound enough to make the idea of a bunch of farmers fighting off a small army of hired guns sufficiently plausible for the audience to buy it, although the final climactic battle goes on for a bit too long. There must have been some reserve units of bad guys hiding back below the ridge line, because the titular Magnificent Seven killed a whole lot more than we saw charging in. It actually started to feel like a video game with infinite minions that just keep respawning until the boss is killed. Still, for all the flaws, there were no glaring “that’s just stupid” moments and it was mostly fun to watch.
If you are going to make a western called The Magnificent Seven, though, comparisons to what came before are unavoidable. So how does this stack up to its predecessors? With the 2016 movie, we don’t get any of the moral ambiguity that made the 1960 movie and Seven Samurai so compelling. The bandits in the earlier movies were desperate and just trying to survive, and the villagers were mostly cowards and barely worth saving. Flawed humans were pitted against one another in a flawed world, and everyone was just trying to do whatever they had to do in order to make it through another day. There was none of that in the current movie. The head of the mining company, Bartholomew Boque (Peter Sarsgaard), walks into a church and declares that his intent to steal the villagers’ land is part of God’s divine plan. Then he burns the church down. There were very clear good guys and bad guys, and that paradoxically made it harder to really care.
The current movie also follows Seven Samurai a lot less closely than the 1960 film. It’s really more homage than remake. The plot follows the earlier movies only in the broadest sense of having seven guys defend a village, and of the Seven, only Lee’s weapon master has a clearly identifiable counterpart in the earlier movies (James Coburn’s Britt and Seiji Miyaguchi’s Kyuzo). But there are enough nods to what came before to satisfy aficionados without confusing anyone who hasn’t seen the earlier movies. Some well-known lines are spoken, and some key plot devices appear in reworked form, like some mid-nineteenth century ordinance taking on the shock and awe role of the matchlock rifles from Seven Samurai.
Points for the current movie for making every death of a main character significant. In the 1960 film, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, and James Coburn all just kind of fall over after a random, off-camera gunshot sound. You don’t even get to see the mook who finally managed to hit something. Playing the 1960 score over the closing credits was also a nice touch.
Overall rating: 7/10