Gonna make an admission here folks – I’ve never seen the original Magnificent Seven. So while I spend a couple of years reclaiming my lost movie badass credentials, I can at least watch the remake and give you an honest, fresh opinion. Look at it this way; I’ve got no preconceived notions. No expectations. I’m not gonna run into it thinking it’s gonna be shit or that it’s an unholy blight on the original movie and all involved should be struck down by Almighty Zeus himself. I’m just gonna shoot straight and tell it like it is, like Clint Eastwood would do. Note: Clint Eastwood is not in this movie.
It’s 1879, and money/power hungry bastard Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard – K:19 Widowmaker) is putting the twist on the helpless folk of Rose Creek. A small mining community, it has all the amenities you’d expect in the standard Western townstead – drinking hole, whore house, sheriff’s office, church. The poor citizens, lead by Matthew Cullen, are sick and tired of working as forced labour in Bogue’s mine. Bogue don’t give a fuck though. He storms in on a town meeting, tells them that he’s gonna buy all their land for $25 a piece, kills Matt and a bunch of other poor idiots, and sets fire to the church. The only way he could be any more a dick would be snapping the neck of a kitten whilst on his way to kick out the walking stick of Old Crippled Jimmy whose down the street (note – Old Crippled Jimmy did not make the final cut of this movie).
He’s gonna be back in three weeks to buy up their land if the fine Rose Creek folk don’t agree to work themselves to death in his mine. They better shape up or ship out. He’s got the sheriff bought and paid for along with an army of goons. No one is gonna put up a fight after what he did to poor Matt Cullen. Except for his widow Emma (Haley Bennett – Hardcore Henry).
Emma and her friend Teddy Q (who is totally tagging along to catch a sympathy shag) won’t accept their fate, and instead seek to hire powerful bounty hunters who will liberate them of Bogue. Their search leads them to Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington – Training Day), a US Marshal who is serving a warrant on some bad runaway dudes in some bar. People are uneasy about him. I initially thought it’s because he’s an African American guy riding a horse, but it comes across more as him having a badass reputation.
During the tense standoff (AKA before Denzel shoots everyone effortlessly), he’s aided by Joshua Faraday (Chris Pratt – Lego Movie), who is losing at a card game across the bar. He sees the bad guys have an extra gun on old Sam, and he evens the odds. He doesn’t get a word of thanks for this. I guess Sam had it covered with or without Faraday’s help. It’s here that Teddy and Emma approach Chisolm and beg him for his help. He’s initially uninterested until he hears that it’s Bogue who is involved. I guess they have a history somehow.
Meanwhile after collecting the spoils from the deserted card game, Faraday is ambushed by two brothers he sharked days ago. They want their money back and Faraday in the ground. He plays it cool though and manages to get the drop on them after some nifty card magic. One brother ends up dead the other minus an ear. Looking to make a sharp exit, he agrees to work for Chisolm to pay off the cost of his horse. He’s the Han Solo, scoundrel type character. A bit lovable, a bit silly, a bit scruffy, but still pretty handy when it comes down to throwing down.
Now they are two. But two isn’t seven. They have five other dudes to recruit. First on the list is the former Confederate marksman Goodnight “Goody” Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke – Gattaga). Goody is another legendary badass who can make people piss their pants just by looking at them. But he’s lost the stones for fighting. Apparently his crazed opium dreams predict he’s going to die the next time he fires his weapon.
I only realized in the shower, after the fact, that this is a reunion of sorts between Denzel and Hawke. They first met in Training Day (also directed by Antoine Fuqua), with Denzel winning Oscar gold thanks to his turn as movie bastard Detective Alonzo Harris, who is taking Hawke’s character through his first day as NARCO police. Here the roles are slightly reversed, where Hawke is the shady guy, with Denzel playing the hero. Amusingly, the characters have an unknown history together, sharing smiles and a wink when they meet. Nice touch, Fuq, nice touch.
While Goody may have lost his taste for blood, his Korean buddy Billy Rocks (Lee Byung-hung – Terminator Genysis) hasn’t. His introduction is really cool. First he outdraws some local idiot. His pride all wounded, the fool challenges Billy to a real duel. Billy agrees and slides off his gun belt. There’s no way he can get to his gun now. But before the goon can even blink, Billy has thrown some little knife at him. So we’ve got the gambler, the sniper, and now we’ve got the knife man too. Billy goes wherever Goody goes . They have some kind of weird, unspoken bond which is kind of interesting. Most likely drug related, but I can’t be sure. I don’t suspect there’s any Brokeback Mountain shenanigans going on, if that’s what you’re thinking.
Next to be recruited is the “Texican” Vasquez (no, not the one from Aliens). Vasquez is a tough as nails outlaw who has been on the run for some time. He likes solving problems with his fists and his guns. He kind of has a thorny relationship with Faraday, but it just turns out to be good-natured banter between badasses. Some of it is even kind of funny, and when push comes to shove, they’re both ready to throw down and die for the other. It’s this kind of brotherhood I love. Like boxers who proper hate each other then hug it out when the fight is over.
Another dude that’s on Sam’s wishlist is mountain-man Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio – Escape Plan). He’s a legendary tracker, killer and preacher. Like Billy, his intro is pretty cool. The Pigeon Brothers, two morons claiming to have cracked Jack’s skull and tossed him off a cliff fail to recognise the man’s natural sturdiness. He tomahawks one, skull crushes the other, and easily recovers the gun they were trying to sell. Looks like the Pigeon Brothers weren’t very famous for long.
That makes Horne the sixth Magnificent. That would seem to be enough for old Chisolm, until a deadly looking Indian brave happens by one day. He puts everyone on edge due to the fact his face is painted red and he’s carrying the carcass of some elk or other. Thankfully Sam speaks some Comanche tongue and discovers the brave does not have a tribe and is “searching for his own way in life”. We can surmise he’s either killed everyone in his clan for some reason, or he’s been exiled for being too damned hardcore. Either way he’s a walking badass. Even his name is cool. He’s called Red Harvest. Named for the fact he harvests all the red from everyone he comes across. In other words he fucking murders them.
Together they head back to Rose Creek ready to kick ass. But Bogue hasn’t left the town totally devoid of men while he pisses about shaking down other towns in Arizona or wherever. Along with the bent Sheriff Harp, he’s got 22 stone cold bastards ensuring the mining op doesn’t skip a beat. The seven enter the town and start ruffling feathers. This leads to a heated stand-off before people start getting shot. This sequence is perhaps the best of the film, and really suits the tone of the movie. It’s snappy, rhythmic, and violent.
This causes a problem though. Yeah, I know, it’s finally some killing and I shouldn’t be complaining. The tension prior to the battle is palpable, but not on the level of say Tombstone, sadly. It does get us on the edges of our seats, however, right in the middle of the film when it really needs some large scale action. Yet it kind of takes the steam out of the finale somehow. Maybe the fact they so easily kill 22 men kind of clues us into how they’re gonna fair. I don’t know. For some reason I just felt the movie peaked here.
Any way, they let the grovelling Sheriff Harp go (minus his sheriff badge) to tell Bogue what’s happened. Chisolm tells him to relay the message that Bogue is a pussy, and wouldn’t dare come and face them himself. Of course, the conceited douchebag falls for it and hastens to Rose Creek to put the sword to the Bothersome Seven , but not after slaying Harp for being so feckless. Back at Rose Creek Chisolm reckons they’ve got about one week to get the knuckle-dragging denizens of the town up to speed on shooting guns and protecting themselves before Bogue and his posse return. It’s seven days at the shooting range, digging trenches, setting up bombs, and having the occasional boy-joke about old flames.
Is it gonna be enough to win their freedom though? Well you’re gonna have to watch to find out….Spoiler…yes it’s enough.
Magnificent Seven is based on the Seven Samurai, which is effectively the same story just with samurai and not cowboys. Directed by the legendary Akira Kurosawa in 1954, it pits a rag-tag bunch of samurai (you guessed it, seven of them), against some fiendish bandits who are plaguing a town. When it was released it was the biggest grossing movie of all time in Japan, and influenced a whole wave of filmmakers both in the East and West. A mere six years later, the American version (Magnificent Seven) was released propped up by an all-star cast.
Director John Sturges (The Great Escape) decided to transpose the traditionally Japanese samurai and instead turned the story into that classic American genre, the western. Featuring badass like Charles Bronson, Yul Brenner, James Coburn, Eli Wallach, and Steve McQueen, it spawned a variety of sequels and remains a staple of both action and western fans to this day. Kurosawa’s influence runs even deeper though, whereby in the seventies, a little known director called George Lucas borrowed elements both from the Seven Samurai and Hidden Fortress (another samurai classic by Kurosawa) and made Star Wars. Perhaps you’ve heard of that one?
40 something years later and you’ve got Antoine Fuqua, director of Training Day, Southpaw, and the Equalizer movie, reigniting the need for another shot at a remake. Only this time it’s a remake of the remake. And I’m not sure why this film exists. I mean, can you get uppity about it being a remake of a remake? Wouldn’t it have been better to remake it something more original? The original Magnificent 7 and Star Wars are both prime examples of what can be done with the source material. I suppose they never did a Return of the Seven Samurai, or Eight Samurai, or whatever, like they did M7. But it still begs the question as to why? What creative hole is this filling? Is it just fan service?
According to Fuqua, the original Magnificent Seven had a huge influence on him as a child, whom joyously watched it with his Grandmother. That’s great, but does it make him the perfect guy to make this movie? Fuqua seems to be at home in urban environments. He can certainly direct action, develop characters, generate tension, and take you on a hell of a ride. He’s a director to look out for, for sure. Training Day, Brooklyn’s Finest, and Southpaw are genuinely great films. There’s a whiff of the Hollywood formula to Olympus Has Fallen and the Equalizer, but they’re fun too.
The same can be said of Magnificent Seven. It feels very much like a polished, Hollywood movie. True it’s not so eye-piercingly mundane as a Transformer film, nor as generically presented as another young adult novel adaptation. But it lacks…magic. It’s not made with the cock-eyed attention to detail that say Tarantino had with Django: Unchained. Nor does it feel genuine and rugged like Eastwood’s Unforgiven.
Being shot in super HD doesn’t help it either. HD doesn’t suits Westerns. It’s too clean. The West wasn’t clean. It was dusty and hard, and people probably had shit caked on them 90% of the time. It was not bright and crisp. Fuqua’s choice of shot and pacing doesn’t sit well with me either. When I think of Westerns I think of long, deliberate shots. Lots of wide panoramic views of the endless horizon, with a pace that slowly perculates as the shoot outs approach. Here it feels very matter-of-fact. It’s not ponderous, but nor does it create much tension either. But what the fuck do I know, it could be a shot-for-shot remake of the original.
The choice of cinematography isn’t the only thing that seems out of place either. None of the characters really have any kind of arc to speak of. They each have their little intro moment, which is fine, but that’s about it. And it’s only the minor Magnificents (the knife-dude, the tracker dude, and the Indian dude) who are really memorable. Billy because he actually kills people without a gun, Jack Horne because actor Vincent D’Onofrio chews all the scenery then gets Boromir’d by the bad guy Indian lieutenant, and Red Harvest because he’s just cool as shit.
It’s even worse for the bad guys. Bogue himself is another in a long line of skinny, limp-wristed-type pricks who stands behind his money and the power it pays for. To be fair, despite being the proto-typical land-hungry psycho, he does get his hands dirty from time-to-time. Apart from him there is only Big Chief Denali, an old disgraced Comanche raider that stands out. And that’s because he’s the only dude who isn’t wearing a trench coat, has an Indiana Jones hat, and uses guns. The confrontation between the Big Chief and Blood Harvester is inevitable but over relatively quickly without much struggle too.
This is a problem, because while it’s fun watching the Magnificent Seven gunning down legions of rank and file, it doesn’t really test them. It doesn’t push them to be better. You need strong antagonists to match strong heroes, otherwise we’re gonna get bored watching them scything them down like chaff. Even in Commando, aside from the colourful likes of Sully, Cooke, Bennett and co, there’s still that dogged unnamed soldier chewing on his cigar that keeps turning up during the gun battle at the end. He even manages to wound Arnie. There’s nothing like that here.
All that bitching aside, there’s still a lot to be said for the film. I won’t spoil the ending, but the seven don’t finish the film as seven, and some of the characters Fuqua and writer Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) choose to kill off is brave. They’re not trying to set up some kind of franchise, which is totally commendable in today’s sequel-driven climate. Equally, it’s interesting to see Denzel as a cowboy and not have the race element enter into the film at all (unlike the obvious contemporary in Django).
As I’ve hinted at earlier, the Magnificent Seven is cast really well. They may be given little to work with, but everyone pulls it off with the upmost respect for the characters and the legacy. Despite the lack of humour, there is an unquestionable chemistry between the seven which resonates through the somewhat basic script. I’ve seen similar final battles executed better (Thirteen Assassins, for example), and a lot of the twists you’ll see coming (like Goody leaving the night before then coming back just when he’s needed), but it still works. It’s still entertaining, and one heroic death in particular really sets this apart from your standard Hollywood action fluff.
Having not seen the original film I can’t say how truthful the 2016 version is. But what I can say is that it’s cool to see Westerns being made to this standard. They’re still a forgotten breed of movies. Yet some of the modern Western contemporaries today are movie gems. Django Unchained, Bone Tomahawk, True Grit (remake), Unforgiven, The Hateful Eight, Tombstone. All powerful films in their own right, and shining examples of the genre regardless of their relatively young age. I think the Magnificent Seven remake should be allowed to make that list too. Get it watched.