Remake a classic by all means, but if you’re going to remake a much-loved, classic western like The Magnificent Seven, itself a remake of Kurosawa Akira’s 1954 classic 七人の侍 (Shichinin no Samurai, The Seven Samurai), then you need to bring something very new with you.
Despite a superb cast, some occasionally excellent scriptwriting and stunning cinematography, director Antoine Fuqua has done very little of real note with his version of The Magnificent Seven. The story cleaves closely to Kurosawa’s Japanese original and John Sturges’ original 1960 English-language version — a small town in the west, Rose Creek, is under the thumb of dastardly proto-capitalist Bartholomew Bogue, whose thugs control the sheriff and his deputies, burn down the church and kill a rather unsportsmanlike number of the townsfolk in the opening act. Emma Cullen, widowed by Bogue, hires Sam Chisholm, a bounty hunter who then assembles the seven to drive Bogue and his men out of Rose Creek.
There was never going to be enormous latitude for Fuqua to take liberties with the story, so any scope he had for making this film something new, something special, lies in what he can do with his characters. And what he does is disappointingly lazy. The seven are less characters and more boxes labeled “diversity” and ticked off one by one. There’s Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), the red Indian who tags along, it would appear, for no better reason than that Chisholm (Denzel Washington) asks him to and he doesn’t have anything else to do that afternoon; there’s Billy Rocks (Byung-Hun Lee), a Chinaman belonging, it appears — the racial politics of the film are suspect, at least — to the wonderfully-named Goodnight Robichaux (Ethan Hawke). There’s Faraday (Chris Pratt), a smart-arsed gunslinger who isn’t, quite, up to the task of providing comic relief. “Hoo, dang it, I’m good!” he ejaculates at one point, but it’s hard to agree with him. There’s also widow Emma (Haley Bennett, looking disconcertingly like Jennifer Lawrence). But there’s very little resembling chemistry between most of the seven, with the possible exception of Faraday and Chisholm, occasionally — in that regard, at least, the film bears a more than passing resemblance to Suicide Squad, not a film you really want your picture compared to. In fact, the only time we meaningfully get to see the seven interact at all naturally is in a bar-room scene before the big showdown — again, something we saw in Suicide Squad.
And the showdown is, indeed, big. And long. And overblown. And protracted. Washington’s Chisholm takes about an hour to assemble his seven, but the film’s two and a quarter hours long. Fuqua gives his characters the occasional powerful speech to fill some of this time, and Washington delivers the handful of set-piece speeches he’s offered with some serious magnificence, but the rest of the film is baggy and loose. Robichaux speaks mostly in portentous but meaningless aphorisms; Faraday asks at one point “Does he always talk like that?” without realising that his question could apply just as well to the film as a whole. When the big showdown finally arrives, it follows a fairly ridiculous A-Team-like near-montage of the seven training the good people of Rose Creek to fire their rifles or shotguns, and McGuivering bunkers and booby-traps. And then, finally, Bogue re-appears, an hour after we last saw him and all but twirling his moustache in case we’ve forgotten just how dastardly he is, for the climax, which ends up with an ending that largely undermines much of what has gone before.
It’s not a good film. From Bogue’s speech to the people of Rose Creek, in which he tries to set up capitalism as the new religion of the west, to Chisholm’s more impressive first showdown with the corrupt lawmen of the town, it feels like an attempt to channel Quentin Tarantino, but a not very successful one. It’s the kind of film Tarantino could make in his sleep; indeed, it has points of contact with Inglorious Basterds, but that was a much, much better film. Fuqua has taken a classic story and managed to detract more than he’s added.