The Magnificent Seven: not a classic, when it needed to be

There’s a lot riding on the horseflesh of this Western. It’s a remake of the 1960 American film The Magnificent Seven, which was itself a remake of a 1954 Japanese film, The Seven Samurai, crafted by the great director Akira Kurosawa. The Seven Samurai continues to be regarded as one of the great films of all time, and certainly among the most influential.

The 1960 film didn’t do a roaring trade at the box office at first, but has come to be highly regarded. In 2013 it was preserved in the U.S. National film registry for being culturally and historically significant.

So the 2016 version, directed by Antoine Fuqua, has big boots to fill. It assembles an impressive cast – Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio and Chris Pratt – and it largely follows the story arc of both the first films. Seven bandits come together to save a small community against huge odds.

It upgrades the building blocks of the story for modern sensibilities: The Seven are a multi-ethnic take on the tale: the black bounty hunter, a Chinese killer for hire, a Mexican outlaw, a Comanche warrior, and three white men. The young widow pleading for their aid (Haley Bennett) is no helpless damsel, rather she is proud, determined, ready to fight and showing more décolletage than probably a woman would have, well over a century ago.

All well and good, but to me this film tries to do two things at the same time and doesn’t succeed in either. The first two movies were largely serious violent adventures. At times, this one adopts a similar tone. Yet at times, it opts for something rather different, almost like an old fashioned Saturday afternoon matinee where when the gunfight starts the good guys never miss and the bad guys often do. For me the movie ebbed and flowed between the attempt at serious drama and the more comic book style of tale. And trying to have a foot in both camps leads to a less than satisfying ride. Yes, you have lots of wisecracks and plenty of action and a lot of shooting and killing, and if you’re after an action adventure then it delivers. But it seems to be trying to do more than that, especially given its pedigree. Damn it, I didn’t care about the characters as much as I ought to have.

Take Denzel Washington’s character Sam Chisolm, the leader of the Seven. He’s a skilled gunslinger, fast with bullets and spare with talk. He’s consumed by the brutal killing of his family years before. He could and should be the emotional centre of the film, but he spends so much time alongside the jokey, wise-cracking gambler Josh Farraday (Chris Pratt) that his mana gets diluted somewhat.  In fact the camera spends a lot of time with Farraday, and not enough time elsewhere. Ethan Hawke’s Goodnight Robicheaux gets some backstory, but we don’t get to know much about Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee) or Vasquez, (Manuel Garcia-Ruflo) or indeed Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). And the most colourful and interesting character, tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), is under-used.

Also frustrating is the depiction of bad guy Bartholomew Bogue. Peter Sarsgaard is an expert at this type of role and does it well, but we don’t know why he is as ruthless as he is, other than he’s greedy.

So when the final scenes play out they don’t have the weight they should. This isn’t helped by one or two outcomes having almost a cheesy quality to them.

The first films made much of justice and sacrifice. The 2016 rides off down that road, but doesn’t quite get there.

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