ANTOINE FUQUA (Southpaw, The Equalizer, Training Day) HAS managed to transform the joyful excitement of The Magnificent Seven into a dull, leaden, sourpuss movie. Unlike the exciting original, with its glittering cast of characters (Yul Brynner going toe to toe with Steve McQueen. Imagine! And backing them up, Robert Vaughn, Charles Bronson, Eli Wallach and James Coburn among others) Fuqua’s … Magnificent Seven offers up a mainly charm-free bunch of heroes that go through the motions, energized only by Fuqua’s payroll and by no discernible motivation for their selflessness. Only Chris Platt manages to add much needed swagger and roguish dynamism into this shoot ‘em up by numbers (and there are thousands of them) gang.
The (well-known) story centres around the struggle of a small town, bent under the heel of a land-grabbing, money hungry baron, that appeals to a stranger for help. These simple townsfolk are cowed by the cartoonishly evil Bartholomew Brogue (Peter Sarsgaard, almost twirling his moustachioes in full pantomime villain style), whose henchmen kill at will. One person they kill is the husband of feisty homesteader Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett, who also appeared with Denzel Washington in Fuqua’s last outing, “The Equalizer”). Her search for help leads her to Chisolm, a fast-shooting traveling lawman (A bored looking Denzel Washington whose career seems to be trapped in B movie hell). In the best line of the movie, she says she’s seeking righteousness, “…but revenge will do”
Chisolm rounds up his crew of action heroes (motivated by the money? Some existential need to do the right thing? Perhaps some deep-seated grudge against Brogue? His moustachioes perhaps? Who knows?) And then, having set a few traps, the action begins. It finally ends after, it seems, most of the villains on the Eastern seaboard have been blown up, axed, stabbed or shot.
Fuqua, seeking some sort of gravitas opts for ‘meaning’ in place of either verisimilitude or fun. The magnificent seven we meet are a typical group of nineteenth century Cowboys: a perfectly harmonious mix of Mexican (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Comanche (played by Alaskan Martin Sensmeier) Chinese (played by Korean Byung-hun-Lee) and White gunslingers (including Fuqua regular and absolutely lost in a fog of despair, Ethan Hawke) lead by a Black man. Unlike the original, where the round-up introduced us (with great wit and charm) to the characters…as people; here we’re introduced to the characters as symbols of American history: the Mexican and the Indian representing, like Emma Cullen and her lot, people whose land was stolen by a more powerful force. The Chinese man, his back crisis-crossed with knives and swords, like a cowpoke Sheera, is, like Chisolm, a part of the unvalued working man who won the West…now being leveled by the democracy of the gun.
The all round bad robber baron is exploitative capitalism, ever greedily seeking to rip off the country, which has finally found the leadership to take back what’s rightfully theirs under the leadership of an incorruptible Black Man (Obama?)
There’s not a lot of ambiguity at play here
Westerns have always been parables for grand ideas…and in the right hands, like all good movies, they’ve operated on multiple levels: the credibly human and the insightfully metaphorical; all driven by some powerful governing idea. Fuqua’s one level The Magnificent Seven is all dehumanized metaphor without insight, energized by an idea of leaden triteness. And what a drag that is.
It’s not been a great year for reboots: Ghostbusters and Jason Bourne were both tiresome copies, shorn of the original magic. Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven” joins the list. The lightness and sparkle of the John Sturges’ original have gone AWOL. Even Elmer Bernstein’s magnificent music has been relegated to the credits at the end; a mere afterthought and a reminder of all that we’ve missed
The Magnificent Seven. Dir: Antoine Fuqua. With: denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun-Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett. Screenplay: Richard Wenk (The Equalizer) and Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective episodes). Composer: Simon Franglen and James Horner (Southpaw)