It would be hard to fuck up a remake of The Magnificent Seven, but if anyone was going to be up to the task it would be director Antoine Fuqua. For a while there -“a while” meaning roughly half of this movie’s running time- this looks like the worst case scenario for such a remake, but then again, the source material is solid enough and there are just enough good choices among a sea of bad ones that the movie manages to turn around and end up as a decent if unremarkable entertainment.
The first half of the movie is particularly worrisome, as we realize that despite being based on an enduring western -which in turn was based on one of the best movies ever made-, this remake is not interested in any kind of classicism. Outside of musical callbacks to Elmer Bernstein’s iconic score, this Magnificent Seven want to leave the world of classic westerns behind and be as modern as possible.
The problems, as is the case with so many movies, begins with the script. Keeping in the tradition of co-writer and True Detective originator Nic Pizzolatto, this is one of those screenplays that think obscure, semi-philosophical dialogue makes up for character development. You know, the ones in which characters are constantly talking about about the concept of death and vengeance in vague terms.
Not to imply that every movie’s major preoccupation needs to be character, but we’re talking about The Magnificent Seven here. A movie whose first half is dedicated to the rounding up of the ragtag group of dangerous and charismatic outlaws that are bound to protect the lonesome western town of Rose Creek from being swallowed up by the evil robber baron played by Peter Sarsgaard. The movie’s idea of badass introductions and fun personalities for its seven antiheroes isn’t very original, but it kind of makes up for it through casting.
The are seven magnificents in this movie, but the narrative focuses on two of them. And just like the movie is half good and half bad, so are the leads. The bad one is Christ Pratt, who broke through as a charming schlub in Parks and Recreation, but graduated into wisecracking leading man with Guardians of the Galaxy. We know Pratt is capable of comedy based on his television work, but the movies have so far let him down in the charisma department. Magnificent Seven serves him with one terrible one-liner after another that only serve to undercut how uncool his character is.
It doesn’t do Pratt any favors being cast opposite Denzel Washington, one of the biggest movie stars alive. Denzel doesn’t even have to open his mouth to fill the screen with oozing charisma. He is the true lead of the film, and his presence is essential to the most interesting and contemporary aspect of this remake. Every western made after 1965 is revisionist in way or another, and this Magnificent Seven turns itself into the story of a band of diverse misfits -led by a black man- that comes together to save a small town from an evil businessman. Sound familiar?
Be it through the racial politics of Training Day or the anti-government message of Shooter, Fuqua has always been a political director. This time, he has purposely assembled a diverse band of heroes. They are, of course, led by Denzel, but four out of these Seven are people of color. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo plays a Mexican, Martin Sensmeier a Comanche, and Korean star Byung-hun Lee ends up being the closest runner-up to Denzel in the charisma department.
Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio round up the cast, but there is only so much that this group of actors can do to counter-balance Fuqua’s frustrated attempts to make all of these people look cool when he is as interested in developing the characters’ personalities as the flawed script he’s working from. Charisma will only take you so far. So will nervously cut and poorly staged action sequences, which is what we get for most of the movie. Surprisingly, and pleasantly, this is not the case in the big finale, which benefits from clear geography and some appropriately pulpy action beats.
The Magnificent Seven might age well as a timely document of America’s preoccupations circa 2016. It might even serve as a fantastical escape for anguished people living through this dire moment. The movie might not hit all the right notes, but it hits them quickly enough that it never loses the beat. It knows itself to be a popcorn entertainment, and doesn’t lose time pretending that it isn’t. It goes through the necessary motions and it arrives at a prolonged final shootout that works much better than expected considering the preceding movie.
I wouldn’t call it a triumph, and I wouldn’t call it a failure. I would say there are far worse ways to spend your Saturday afternoon.
Grade: I flow between a 5 out of 10