The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 30, 2016

The Magnificent Seven—Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Haley Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Matt Bomer, Martin Sensmeier (2016; Dir:  Antoine Fuqua)

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The initial question is whether a 56-year-old classic with several iconic roles needs to be remade.  Of course, this classic was itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, an even greater classic.  Just as with 3:10 to Yuma and True Grit in recent years, the answer is yes, this is a good western—not as great as the 1960 classic, but worth making and worth watching.

Not much remains the same as in the classic—just the magic number of seven (although an argument could be made that there are eight here, including feisty widow Emma Cullen), the fight to defend the helpless against evil and insuperable odds, and the final result, with a few lines here and there from the 1960 film.  Of course, the same is true of any number of movies where our heroes put together a small team to pit their expertise in a righteous cause against huge odds:  The Professionals, The Dirty Dozen, The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, Armageddon, etc.

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The first two: Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington; note the gun worn butt-forward) and Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt).

Director Antoine Fuqua has a reputation for being good with large-scale action movies (as did John Sturges, director of the original), and he does well enough here.  He starts with good casting.  This time the leader of the seven is Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington, all in black), a “duly-sworn warrant officer from Wichita, Kansas, and seven other states.”  The trailer says he is a bounty hunter.  He is approached by two homesteaders from Rose Creek (apparently in California), one of whom is Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), newly widowed.  (Her late husband, played by Matt Bomer, doesn’t even make it to the opening credits.)  When she explains her situation to Chisolm, he responds, “So you seek revenge.”  She answers, “I seek righteousness, as we all should.  [Pause.]  But I’ll take revenge.”  The revenge is against mining baron Bartholomew Bogue, played by Peter Sarsgaard with a hunch-shouldered evil-Richard Nixon vibe.  He wastes no time in persuading us of his badness, shooting an unarmed man point-blank and burning the local church.

Sam Chisolm:  “What we lost in the fire, we found in the ashes.”

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For the next segment of the movie, the focus is on the recruitment of the rest of the seven.  The second member is Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), a gambler, drinker and gunman whose horse is saved by Chisolm.  Then follow Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), a well-known Civil War sniper, and his partner Billy Rocks (played by Korean star Byung-hun Lee, apparently equally good with guns and blades, although he prefers blades).  They take on an eccentric bear-like Bible-quoting mountain man, Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio).   And they are joined by war-painted Comanche Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier, partially of Tlingit ancestry).

Arriving at Rose Creek, the seven proceed with efficiently cleaning out Bogue’s caretakers.  Then come the sequences of training the citizenry and preparing the field for the return of Bogue in a week with larger numbers.  The townspeople are game but don’t show much aptitude for weaponry, except for Emma.  Bogue returns as expected with dozens of hired gunmen (from the Blackstone agency, an obvious reference to the Pinkertons).  Initially the battle goes well enough, but it wears down the townspeople and the seven, albeit with a much greater toll on Bogue’s men.

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Young widow Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) seeks help.

As his numerical advantage is reduced, Bogue breaks out a gatling gun, which seems able at some distance to seek out opposing forces with surprising accuracy, not just rapid fire.  The end will come as no surprise, with most of the seven down, but the town and the remainder of the seven winning.  The ending reveals more of Chisolm’s motivations in taking on Bogue, and Emma gets her revenge.

One of the strengths of the original 1960 movie was in the casting of the seven; with one exception (Brad Dexter), every one of them was a significant star by the end of the decade.  Here, the temptation is to see the seven more as ethnic types.  One would have welcomed a little more backstory on them, but the same was true of the original.  Ethan Hawke’s Robicheaux is traumatized by PTSD and nightmares, similar to Robert Vaughn’s haunted gunfighter in the original.  There is a knife-on-gun fight with Byung-hun Lee’s Billy Rocks, as with James Coburn in the original.  We never really understand D’Onofrio’s Jack Horne, and Sensmeier’s Red Harvest remains determinedly enigmatic.  Chris Pratt’s character is energetic and interesting, but kind of scattered.

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Some elements of the battle are predictable.  When we see that Bogue has an evil Indian in his ranks, we know that Red Harvest will have to deal with him.  As Chisolm gives Bogue too much time to talk, we can sense Bogue’s end coming from another source.  Sarsgaard is every bit as evil as required, but he’s not nearly as interesting as Eli Wallach’s Mexican bandit chieftain in the original.  Even the line about sheep being sheared seems flatter coming from him, because his character as written understands less.  Denzel Washington works well as a black leader of white men in the post-Civil War west, but nobody comments on it.  We never really know why Chisolm, a black man, and Robicheaux, a former Confederate sniper from Louisiana, are friends.

At bottom, Washington is good enough here that we’ll have to regret that he won’t be in as many westerns as we’d like to see him in.  His skill with a gun reminds one of Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars—perhaps not entirely believable, but good to watch and what we want to see from him.  As the vengeful young widow, Haley Bennett is surprisingly good.  If you’re wondering where you’ve seen her before, you may be surprised to remember her as a Britney Spears-esque teen pop star in the romantic comedy Music and Lyrics (with Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore).  Within a month after the release of this film, she had a significant role in The Girl on the Train.  Between the two, they probably constitute a breakout for her into stardom.

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A significant part of the conflict in the situation is from bad men struggling to do good, mostly without really intending to and juggling their different motivations.  How compelling or rewarding is the impulse to do good, to help the defenseless against evil?  Mostly religious settlers are depicted in modern movies just as ineffective simpletons.  Here religion seems to be taken a bit more seriously and given a bit more depth, by Jack Horne and by a number of others—a more accurate representation of why it is a positive force in the community.  When considering the odds, Jack Horne (otherwise kind of a wild man) says that defending good people, fighting alongside men such he now considers the seven to be, is all he can ask for in an end.  That’s a good line and comes across as an honest assessment, for him.  Although there is melancholy for the dead at the end, it does not end with the feeling of Chris Adams in 1960 or Kurosawa’s samurai in 1954:  “The old man was right.  Only the farmers won.  We lost.  We always lose.”  Sam Chisolm definitely won here.

Of course, another thing the 1960 original got right was its musical score by Elmer Bernstein, with its unforgettable theme.  Of all the elements from 1960, audiences may be looking for a reprise of that theme.  It doesn’t show up until the closing credits, but that’s okay.  The 1960 theme had a certain optimism that is contrary to the mood of this remake, and the 2016 score by James Horner and Simon Franglen is in the tradition of Bernstein’s work while fitting in better with this film.  Excellent cinematography by Mauro Fiore.  Shot largely in Arizona; in color, at 133 minutes.

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