With a pedigree in tough, gritty, mean-streets-specific dramas and thrillers like Training Day, Southpaw, and The Equalizer, Antoine Fuqua’s remake of The Magnificent Seven comes as a major surprise. The obvious assumption was that this distinctly contemporary director would perform some kind of modernist reconstruction of the western, applying a patina of new millennium style and attitude in order to drag this burnished genre up to date. But The Magnificent Seven – a remake of John Sturges’ classic 1960 western of the same name, which itself was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece, Seven Samurai – does the exact opposite of that. No revisionist western, this is very much a traditional, classicist approach to the genre. Yes, the filmmaking techniques are a little more pumped up, and you could probably draw a long bow and say that the film makes comment about today’s unscrupulous, rapacious, and government-sanctioned mining companies, but The Magnificent Seven remains a straightforward tale of good guys and bad guys built on gunfights, machismo, and double barrelled toughness.
The film opens in the frontier town of Rose Creek, which is under the deadly control of wealthy miner, Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who’s angling – in no uncertain terms – to remove the hamlet’s hardscrabble farmers from their land so he can plunder it for what lies beneath. Living in fear, the desperate townspeople employ protection from seven hired guns, led by the ever watchable and authoritative Denzel Washington’s fearsome bounty hunter, Sam Chisholm. As these inveterate tough guys prepare the town for an inevitable violent showdown with Bogue’s mini-army of hired guns, these seven mercenaries – Chris Pratt (indulging in his now trademarked brand of wisecracking charm), Ethan Hawke (brilliant as the most complex and nuanced of the motley crew), Vincent D’Onofrio (picking chair legs out of his back teeth in a cackling, willful display of entertaining scenery chewing), Byung-hun Lee (the Korean superstar oozes star quality, and has great chemistry with Ethan Hawke, with their characters’ oddball relationship one of the film’s highlights), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (who’s gruff and not much else), and Martin Sensmeier (whose Native American warrior is thinly drawn but visually arresting) – find themselves caught up in a fight with more meaning than just the gold that they initially signed up for.
With The Magnificent Seven, you unquestionably get what you came for: it’s exciting; the narrative kicks along at a hectic pace; the action set pieces are elaborately and inventively staged; and the charisma of its big-name cast practically bleeds off the screen. But while the screenplay by Nic Pizzolatto (creator/writer of TV’s True Detective) and Richard Wenk (The Mechanic, The Equalizer, The Expendables 2) boasts plenty of amusing snap-and-crackle in the dialogue, it’s decidedly more lacking in the equally important territories of characterisation and motivation. While the film’s seven tough guys are enjoyably flashy in an almost superhero-style way with their near otherworldly facility for arse-kicking, their reasons for so willingly signing up for a suicide mission are never made sufficiently clear. Along with the mostly thumbnail sketch level of characterisation, it makes for an unstable dramatic foundation which constantly creaks and shudders throughout the film. The whole shebang never falls down, however, and The Magnificent Seven ultimately rates as an entertaining, rollicking ride.