It took only six years to remake The Seven Samurai as The Magnificent Seven, but it’s taken another fifty-six years to remake The Magnificent Seven as The Magnificent Seven. More than half a century is a long time, but considering the version Antoine Fuqua and a (should be) capable cast have just spat out at a multiplex near you, perhaps they should have waited a little longer?
Westerns, especially traditional action/adventure ones, are so uncommon nowadays that each new release deserves to be met with some level of enthusiastic anticipation. This also puts added pressure on each movie to be, you know, at least somewhat good. Compared to the dime-a-dozen horror genre, westerns have it rough, but if this latest incarnation of The Magnificent Seven is any indication, audiences have it rougher.
This is as drab and bland and devoid of creativity as any cowboy picture that Hollywood has stitched together with the pieces of several other better movies. There’s no joy in the resurrecting of a bygone age, no exciting world-building, no stylistic flair that lets these heroes reach an iconic peak of cool. Shot after shot, moment after moment, Fuqua drains his pricey adaptation of any flavour or originality.
The western genre, in its relative rareness nowadays, has certainly attracted top-notch filmmakers with fresh and vibrant approaches of late. You have to go back twenty-four years to mark Eastwood’s revisionist gem Unforgiven, perhaps the last true masterpiece of the genre, but this current decade alone has given us the Coen brothers’ tremendous remake of True Grit and two vastly different, though thematically linked Tarantino pictures, Django Unchained and last year’s The Hateful Eight.
Even though that’s what widely released western cinema has been up to lately, it shouldn’t intimidate something like The Magnificent Seven, which aims low, opting only to be rousing entertainment. It’s a fine target for an old-fashioned cowboy shoot-em-up and one that should be relatively easy to hit with a solid cast and all the tools currently afforded by modern filmmaking technology. Fuqua’s movie simply needs to be fun, both visually and energetically, but instead it’s a flat, ugly slog from the start.
A prologue drags on too long and sets up the situation of a generic farm town being brutally harassed by sniveling land baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, boringly cast) in a manner so trite that it feels more like a parody than an attempt at establishing a formidable villain. From there, it’s the familiar tale of a townsperson seeking help from some hired guns willing to defend the town against Bogue and his inevitably assembled army.
The familiarity of the story doesn’t matter, though. Criticizing the lack of originality in the plot of a remake would be pretty silly. And really, this Magnificent Seven shares only the core conceit and general setting with its predecessor. The characters and their experiences are largely a departure from the men of John Sturges’ Magnificent Seven, aside from Denzel Washington strutting around in an all-black outfit reminiscent of the one worn by previous lead Yul Brynner.
It’s arguably a good thing that this new movie goes in its own direction and doesn’t get bogged down in constant references and callbacks to Sturge’s version, but a plot as thin as this one with a setup so simple puts extra pressure on the charisma of the cast and the vibrancy of the visuals to succeed. With Washington just carting out his usual shtick and Chris Pratt replacing charm with smarm and being boring in the process, the main actors are mainly a bust. Vincent D’Onofrio shows up looking like a beast and sounding like a mouse for reasons that are completely beyond this viewer. It’s one of the oddest performances D’Onofrio has ever delivered and yet it’s all more embarrassing than invigorating for this movie that clearly needs all the weirdness it can get.
As wasted and wayward as the cast may be, they’re gold compared to Mauro Fiore’s photography and Fuqua’s direction of the camera. The inside of one’s eyelids is likely more intriguing than this lifeless blend of browns and yellows. Westerns past and present have often been visually stunning, which is especially impressive considering the genre’s relatively narrow lens that requires a level of sameness in geography, costumes, buildings, modes of transportation, and weapons. Even when the imagery isn't a standout element, western pics usually look good enough. The original Magnificent Seven was hardly a visual tour de force, but it had a crisp, quality look that is certainly preferable to the dullness on display here.
For reasons like those, Fuqua’s take on The Magnificent Seven seems the worst kind of remake. A mish-mash and a rehash that borrows only the title and basic concept from its predecessor and yet does nothing new with any of it. Lame performances from an otherwise promising cast, guided by a filmmaker who once directed Washington to his second Oscar. Interestingly, the one performance in this new movie that works well (much better than the surrounding picture deserves) is Washington’s Training Day costar Ethan Hawke, who plays a washed-up Civil War hero now haunted by the past. Hawke actually brings some meaty flavour to the mix and doesn’t appear to be merely recycling his own shtick.
That’s all I’ve got for praise, though. As good as Hawke is, everyone and everything else is completely slumming it. Again, what’s so baffling about this is how easy it should be to get right. The remake is on the right path by deviating from Sturges’ movie, freeing up Fuqua to just have some boisterous fun with the basic idea of tough guy heroes standing up for the little guy and sticking it to a bullying businessman. Instead, it just seems like Fuqua took a nap. The old west was wild, but this new movie has been tamed. Whenever these cowboys choose to finally ride off into the sunset, hopefully they can take their movie with them.