From the 1954 original Seven Samurai to its 1960 Hollywood remake The Magnificent Seven, this tale of a band of heroes coming together to save unfortunate souls from oppression has been filmed so many times, and inspired so many variants, you’d think another remake would be quite unnecessary.
Yet here it is – 56 years after Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen & Co. first rode to save helpless Mexican peasant villagers from villain Eli Wallach’s plundering bandit army and sardonic dialogue – courtesy of director Antoine Fuqua, who was responsible for 2014’s Equalizer big-screen reboot.
Remakes, reboots, reimaginings … everything these days is fair game for Hollywood’s ongoing “re”-cycle drive. Yet the perennial question surrounding such exercises is: why do they even bother with revisiting beloved films if they’re not going to add anything new to the mythology?
Unfortunately, it is still unanswered after this Magnificent Seven revisit.
It’s not as pointless as, say, the Psycho, Carrie, Halloween and Straw Dogs remakes, though. And to be fair, this one has everything you would expect of an entertaining Western: John Ford-esque panoramic vistas and brotherhoods forged on the trail, tense staredowns, despicable villains, swaggering heroes, deadly gunplay, high stakes, an exciting score (though the classic Elmer Bernstein theme only comes on at the end – hey, at least Mr Fuqua gives us a familiar, beloved musical cue this time) and dialogue delivered with such earnestness it’s as if the characters were spitting bullets at each other.
And yet … when the story runs so close to the original, and the best lines are actually lifted from that one (most obviously, from McQueen and Wallach’s characters), that question of “Why?” comes to the fore again, elbowing its way past battling gunslingers and stampeding horses and challenging filmmakers and movie studios everywhere to look it in the figurative eye and attempt an answer.
I’m not being harsh on the film, which is in most departments really well made. Merely expressing my ongoing bafflement over studios sinking so much money into an unending stream of remakes, most of which lose tons of money, instead of investing modest amounts to gamble on more original screenplays (and there’s no shortage out there, looking at each year’s Black List).
Back to the business at hand: the 2016 Magnificent Seven sets its action firmly in the United States, not Mexico this time, in a small town called Rose Creek, which is in the way of robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) and his gold-mining plans.
Off goes recently-widowed Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), whose husband was gunned down in the street for standing up to Bogue, to look for some hired guns to take on the bad man and his army of … other hired guns.
She finds “duly licensed” bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) who, in turn, recruits and/or randomly encounters six more men: slick-talking gunslinger/gambler Josh Farraday (Chris Pratt), sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), gunfighter/knife-thrower Billy Rocks (Lee Byung-hun), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), mountain man Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Comanche brave Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier).
A diverse bunch in personality, ability and casting, this modern Magnificent Seven is a winning bunch. Overall, I’d say they are even a little less morally ambiguous than the 1960 group.
Chisolm brings the gravitas and personal connection to the problems faced by the people of Rose Creek, while Farraday piles on the charm and humour (as well as bursts of cold-blooded killing). Vasquez makes an unlikely hero but eventually gives the audience enough reasons to root for him. Horne, a little anomalous with his slightly high-pitched voice coming out of someone who is essentially “a bear wearing man clothes”, is the team’s heart and unlikely conscience. And Red Harvest has a wry sense of humour under all that war paint, not to mention some cool Green – erm, Red? – Arrow moves.
Perhaps the most fun to watch of the lot, though, are Robicheaux and Rocks – the remake’s rough equivalents of Robert Vaughn and James Coburn’s characters from back in 1960 – who have formed kind of a symbiotic partnership. Symbiotic? Heck, these two guys are bros in every sense of the word. You know, in the vein of “Hey, I saved you a bad guy to kill over there.” “Thanks … Bro!”
Their bromance crowds out any other story threads of romance for the rest, though some is implied, with most of it revolving around the Widow Cullen. But there’s little time for all that even at a running time of close to two hours, because there is so much manly-man business to get done.
Referencing other genre standouts like Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider and Sergio Leone’s stunning Once Upon A Time In The West, Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven is a film that is brimming with confidence – from the bearing of its characters to its leisurely buildup and the handling of its thrilling action set-pieces.
Yet that big question mark of originality remains, with perhaps only the Goodnight-Billy bros-before-heroes angle doing some duty in the freshness department.
I’d like to see what Fuqua, a huge Western fan, could do with an original story. A sequel seems inevitable, just as the first Magnificent Seven was followed by three sequels and a TV series. That would be a fine opportunity for the director to head off to parts unknown and show that, story-wise at least, the Old West hasn’t been completely mined out yet.
The Magnificent Seven
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Byung-hun Lee, Vincent D’Onofrio, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard, Luke Grimes