Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sansmeier, Peter Sarsgaard, Haley Bennett
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writers: Nic Pizzolatto, Richard Wenk
In making this film Fuqua has given himself not one, but two cinematic legacies to live up to. First is Akira Kurosawa’s seminal Seven Samurai, arguably the greatest and most influential picture ever made by the great Japanese director. The second is John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, the lesser Hollywood remake that nevertheless brought its own style and charm to the story. The former is a groundbreaking epic of masterful artistry and immense depth. The latter is a classic American western made enormously watchable by its terrific production and all-star cast. Neither of the shadows cast by these films can be ignored. Although this film takes the name of the Sturges’ film, it still cites the Kurosawa epic as its source material. Thus, whether the film wants to be an entertaining escapist spectacle or an innovative work of art (or, dare I say, both), the standard is high on both fronts.
The mining town of Rose Creek is attacked by a troop of bandits led by the corrupt entrepreneur Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who imposes his will by slaughtering many of the locals. Thus Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) and Teddy Q (Luke Grimes) set out on a mission in search of help. They find it in the warrant officer Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington) who accepts the contract upon learning of Bogue’s involvement. He sets out to recruit a team to help him with this endeavour, starting with the gambler John Faraday (Chris Pratt). The two are later joined by the sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his knife-wielding comrade Billy Rocks (Lee Byung-hun), the crazed but capable tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), the disreputable Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and the Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeir). The seven of them together come to Rose Creek where they put into motion a plan to defend the town and its people from Bogue’s forces.
One of the strong points shared by both the Kurosawa and the Sturges films is the simplicity of their stories. Seven diverse warriors band together to combat a single threat. It is this simplicity that allowed both stories to be strongly driven by character and action. Fuqua’s film has this same simple setup; the problem is that he offers little of substance in its execution. Despite having a terrific cast at his disposal, there are few moments when they are truly able to come together and bring some life to the story. This is largely because the characters are defined more by star power than they are by their personalities. This can work on occasion. Chris Pratt, for example, does well in what is very much a ‘Chris Pratt’ role: a cocky but charming scoundrel. Denzel Washington however is cast as a strong, silent type and is thus allowed few opportunities to display his formidable on-screen presence and charisma. The chemistry between the actors is sometimes there, as in one scene where Washington and Hawke revive some of the energy that made them a great duo in Training Day, but little of it adds either drive or weight to the narrative.
There was certainly potential for a great movie here. The greatest realisation of that potential is the criminally underused Sarsgaard as the overtly evil Bogue. The cast is easily this film’s strongest asset and it’s a shame that Fuqua was unable to take full advantage of it. Still, for some viewers at least, the assemblage of these actors in this setting will be enough. I did like that the film took strides to include greater diversity in its ensemble, incorporating men of different ethnicities who showcase singular styles of fighting. This pays off in the third act when the final battle takes place. What we get here is more than simple horse riding and gunfire. During this climax Billy Rocks brings his knives into the gunfight, the ox-like Jack Thorne bull rushes his foes into submission and Red Harvest looses arrows left, right and centre. The build up towards this fight may have been lacklustre and the major character deaths that follow may not resonate in any meaningful way but, in terms of pure spectacle, it’s still a pretty great climax.
While there isn’t anything substantially wrong with this film, as far as remakes go, there is nothing that allows The Magnificent Seven to stand on its own two feet. Compared to the Sturges’ classic it is a lesser imitation. To even bother comparing it to Kurosawa’s masterpiece would be almost like comparing a finger painting to the ‘Mona Lisa’. It is a sometimes entertaining but ultimately hollow film that feels more like a star vehicle than it does a western. It seemed to me that the film was more interested in cashing in on the ensemble blockbuster trend started by The Avengers than it was in telling a great story. The western setting felt artificial and the movie’s discussion on the themes of honour, justice and sacrifice felt insincere. This film could have been something special, if only it had half of the emotion and depth of the films that influenced it. Instead The Magnificent Seven stands as a picture of unrealised possibility and unfulfilled promise.