Review: The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Stars: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Haley Bennett

Denzel Washington – doggedly the least-interesting A-list actor working today – heads up the cast of this wholly unnecessary retread of John Sturges’ 1960 film, itself a derivation of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai; a film which frequently finds itself in the top end of critics’ polls of the greatest movies ever made.

I mean honestly, why does this version even exist? If ever there was a futile battle for acceptance, this is it.

Even Sturges’ flawed film is beloved, having weathered half a century of TV repeats. What does director Antoine Fuqua possibly hope to add to the mix by mounting this version? The question isn’t answered within the movie, which crashes by with all the grace of a Keith Lemon advert for Carphone Warehouse. Perhaps it was to be expected, however. Following the critical and commercial successes of the Coen Brothers’ reimagining of True Grit and Quentin Tarantino’s take on the Django series, the Western is a financially appealing prospect for studios for the first time in decades.

To his credit, this is one of Fuqua’s better films in a while (a spotty resumé which includes Olympus Has Fallen and Southpaw among its recent dubious ‘highlights’), and it’s no real surprise that he’s drafted in the dependable Washington as his front man, but the paucity of sense that holds this remake together is a large part of its undoing.

The gist is the same as it always was. A town is in danger, bent under the will of a ruthless man (Peter Sarsgaard this time). With little other recourse available to them, the townsfolk promise all their worldly goods to a ragtag band of bounty hunters, loners and reprobates, assembled by a leader (that’s Washington) to stand against the coming evil. Hell, everyone likes a good underdog story.

So the first half of the movie goes about charting the creation of the seven. Plucky young Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) does the hiring; she’s the only female character of note in the film and comes with a pleasing and fiery line of wherewithal (slightly undermined by Fuqua’s insistence on gawking at her bust). Washington’s Sam Chisolm is first because, well, reasons, and he assembles the rest because, well, reasons again. Fuqua’s film – co-written by True Detective man Nic Pizzolatto – skips past motive in favour of keeping the momentum up, so that by the time Martin Sensmeier’s roaming Comanche joins the party, the audience has given up looking for sense in proceedings. Only Chris Pratt’s literal joker Josh Faraday is dangled the carrot of financial gain; said financial gain, too, is left curiously vague.

Given how openly lethal the task at hand is, the ease with which these men fall in line hampers the veracity of everything that follows, and what a curious and uneven bunch they are. That Chisolm is a black man is something the film disregards, and this is to its credit (in a time of racial division especially in the film’s native USA, that frank acceptance of this fact within the movie is one of its crowing achievements)… but the character is as perfunctory as they come. One dimensional, through and through. He’s even mocked for it but Ethan Hawke’s Goodnight Robicheaux; a far more interesting if not a-typical creation lost in the shuffle of so many faces.

The bad news? The busy cast list and one eye on the running time means that – with a sinking inevitability – the other non-white cast members (Byung-hun Lee, Manual Garcia-Rulfo, the aforementioned Sensmeier) are starved of screen time, dimension and even dialogue, to the point that one wonders if they’ve been cast purely so that they’re distinguishable from the sea of white hired guns on site to fall like flies in the finale. The worse news? This doesn’t extend to Vincent D’Onofrio’s mystifying Jack Horne; a strong contender for D’Onofrio’s worst screen appearance, and I remember Escape Plan. Why is he doing Rob Brydon’s small-man-in-a-box voice throughout this picture? Not a man alive can tell you.

The second half goes exactly as you’d expect also. They prep the townsfolk, they fortify the town, it all goes to shit and there’s an extended gunfight. Despite it’s 12A certificate (not sure who got blown to secure that one), the last 30 minutes of The Magnificent Seven circa 2016 is a ceaseless blast ’em up – headache-inducing, somewhat confused and ultimately rather dull, and not just for its mysterious bloodlessness (this sequence must have been edited to within an inch of its life). It’s like a joke that goes on too long. First it’s good, then it’s tiresome, then – if you’re lucky – it gets a second wind and it’s good again (see Will Ferrell’s career).

The good news is that The Magnificent Seven does get good again. With the numbers thinned down, the final confrontation between Washington and Sarsgaard is near enough every bit as ugly as you want it to be. And what ugliness! For all it’s faults, The Magnificent Seven is an extremely eye-catching experience. Cinematographer Mauro Fiore has done some exemplary work here. In the main this goes through the obligatory acknowledgements to Ford, Leone, Kurosawa, but in the finale Fiore finds something of his own voice, and it’s a beautifully hellish one. The picture looks good throughout, but this last confrontation is shot as though it’s designed for the ages.

Which it isn’t.

The film bounces along in the saddle merrily thanks to some two-bit camaraderie between this bunch of ciphers on horseback, and Chris Pratt adds a decent belt of charm to proceedings as you’d expect, but when all’s said and done there’s little if anything here to warrant a second viewing. This is a classic tale, absolutely, but there are classics out there already. If you want to revisit this one, chances are you’ll be riding out with Sturges or Kurosawa again before you spare a thought for Fuqua.

Score:  2-5

 

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