The Magnificent Seven (2016)
Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Haley Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard
(MGM / Columbia Pictures / Village Roadshow Pictures / Escape Artists)
US theatrical: 23 Sep 2016
UK theatrical: 23 Sep 2016
Setting aside the moral ambiguities of the Sturges and Kurosawa classics, Antoine Fugua’s re-imagining of The Magnificent Seven is a glorious orgy of machismo and mayhem. Larger-than-life gunslingers gleefully mow through a gauntlet of bad guys and look damn good doing it. This is quality escapist entertainment with just a pinch of substance; the perfect way to cap off summer blockbuster season and start the pretentious march toward Oscar.
Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) is a bad man. He’s what they used to call a ‘robber baron’ back in the day. In 1879, he comes to the tiny Frontier settlement of Rose Creek and does what any self-respecting villain would do; demands that the townspeople sell their land to his mining company or else leave town in a pine box.
Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) is having none of it. You can tell she’s trouble because she’s the only woman in town bold enough to show any cleavage. After watching Bogue murder her husband in the street, Emma recruits Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) to balance the scales of justice (i.e., take revenge). Why she decides to hire Chisolm, or how she finds him in the middle of nowhere, are trivial matters when there’s killing to be done!
Chisolm is a feared bounty hunter with a shady reputation. Vanity demands that he introduce himself as a, “duly sworn warrant officer”, but he’s just one step removed from the outlaws he’s hunting. Chisolm gladly accepts Emma’s sack of gold and then assembles a team of scoundrels and loners to clean up Rose Creek and settle an old score with Bogue.
Half the fun with a film like The Magnificent Seven is assembling the eccentric allies. It takes on added emphasis when many of those allies are big stars. Chris Pratt, for instance, is the self-described, “World’s greatest lover”, though he clearly hasn’t romanced anything saucier than a whiskey bottle in years. Pratt is his usual roguish self and acclimates fairly well to the Old West, though you wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see him checking his text messages.
Director Fugua (Training Day, The Equalizer) knows that audiences are there to see his stars, so he wisely sidesteps much of the perfunctory fraternizing between the Magnificent gang and the local yocals. Once the bullets start flying, there’s no time to worry about an unnecessary plot, anyway. Bonding and “Kumbaya” are replaced with a few comic scenes of combat training and plenty of acrobatics and bloodshed. In other words, this is a ballsy action story that doesn’t have time for that self-realization crap.
While the townspeople might not be fleshed out, the production designers do an outstanding job of making Rose Creek an authentic battleground. Like most good Westerns, the townspeople aren’t just fighting the villain, but the encroachment of civilization itself. Expansive sets and the rolling New Mexico vistas (captured by cinematographer Mauro Fiore) bring to life a rugged Frontier town that orders wooden coffins by the dozen.
Screenwriters Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto aren’t overly concerned with moral ambiguities or the redemption of their lovable rascals. Instead, they focus on giving the main characters plenty of scenery to chew in their standard-issue Western plot. It’s a strategy that works extremely well, save for a laughably shallow villain. Compared to Eli Wallach’s iconic villain, Calvera, Sarsgaard’s Bogue is a psychotic bureaucrat with cold cash running through his veins. He more resembles Oldman’s drug-addled cop from Léon than anything we’ve seen in classic Westerns.
The weak villain doesn’t ruin The Magnificent Seven, however, because this isn’t a story about the competition for scant resources in some desolate outpost. This is the story of inevitable economic expansion built upon human suffering and violence. In other words, it’s the story of how America was built. This coldhearted cynicism makes Fugua’s film less intimate than those of Sturges and Kurosawa, but more emblematic of modern tastes, which often view sentimentality and flexibility as character flaws.
All of the actors have a great time flirting with the camera. This is a gang of cocky and brash street punks; equally adept with a sarcastic retort or a punch in the kisser. They were born to go down with a blaze of glory and a well-timed quip. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Washington’s stoic Chisolm is the least interesting of the Seven. The slow-burning mystery of his backstory with Bogue doesn’t mesh with the action free-for-all that everyone else is enjoying. Indeed, he feels somewhat small and antiquated when compared to his hyper-stylized partners.
Ethan Hawke, as the cowardly drunkard ‘Goodnight Robicheaux,’ and Vincent D’Onofrio’s hulking Indian tracker are particularly delicious in their limited screen time. Hawke has a surprisingly rustic appeal that works well on the Frontier; a quality he also flashes in the upcoming John Wick-infused Western, In a Valley of Violence. D’Onofrio steals every scene with his disconcertingly squeaky voice and self-serving religious dogma. “I believe that bear was wearing people clothes,” Chris Pratt astutely observes of the ambling D’Onofrio, whose horse definitely deserves hazard pay.
The Magnificent Seven has all the trappings and cliché’s of a classic Western, but it’s just a modern action movie transplanted to the Old West. Despite all of the Trump-Obama commentary circling this film in the Press, there’s not enough social commentary to distract anyone, regardless of their political leanings. The Magnificent Seven is an unapologetic crowd pleaser, filled with daring anti-heroes, thrilling shootouts, and bloody gallows humor. Saddle up!