Run-of-the-Mill Thrills in the West
Westerns are few and far between in cinemas today. Big budget Westerns even more so. So a massive, action spectacle set in the Wild West and remaking one of the staples of the genre should be thrilling by the means of simply existing. So then why does director Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven feel so forgettable?
Perhaps it’s because everything is played so straight. From its by-the-numbers plot of cowboys protecting innocent folk from a greedy corporation to its familiar earnestness concerning honor and sacrifice in the Old West, The Magnificent Seven isn’t looking to blaze a new trail, just spruce up the old ones with its massive budget. The action is fast and brutal, the performances charming to a large degree, and the embrace of the genre and its many tropes fun in and of itself, but there’s nothing all that remarkable to be found here, even if it’s generally a good time.
A remake of the 1960 Western of the same name (which itself was a remake of Akira Kurasawa’s 1954 Seven Samurai), The Magnificent Seven is a rollicking shoot-‘em-up about a group of men who defend a town from a ruthless land baron who seeks to take everything that they have. Led by the altruistic Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington), the motley group of thieves and killers fight back against massive odds to defend a town they’ve never known.
By and large, The Magnificent Seven is a star vehicle, propelled by Washington and co-star Chris Pratt as the raucous gambler Joshua Faraday. They make an impression by and large, with Washington in ultra badass mode (as opposed to his typical badass and very badass modes) and Pratt bringing his roguish charm to a rather standard role. They’re backed by a variety of stars of varying sizes, some of whom get far more of a chance to shine than other. Ethan Hawke’s haunted sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux, Lee Byung-hun’s athletic knife-wielding Billy Rocks, and Vincent D’Onofrio’s supremely odd yet endearing tracker Jack Horne bring some extra flavor to the proceedings. They’re also joined by Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as the Mexican outlaw Vasquez and Martin Sensmeier as Comanche archer Red Harvest, but they’re simply given little to do outside of some fun action sequences.
The racial diversity found here is clearly an objective of this remake, adding a more widely-representative cast in the Wild West than what was typically seen in standard Westerns of the ‘60s, including the original Magnificent Seven. Indeed, there are meant to be some parallels to modern society in its narrative as well, with a greedy white businessman being the antagonist compared to the original’s Mexican banditos. However, it’s mostly dressing placed on standard action-adventure trops.
Outside of the seven, Haley Bennett plays Emma Cullen, the woman who has come to recruit protectors for her town and also defend it herself. She’s a fairly strong foil to the men of action, with her empowered role reflecting some of Hollywood’s shifting portrayals of gender norms in big budget action spectacles today. And then there’s Peter Sarsgaard as mustache twirling villain Bartholomew Bogue. It’s a performance that’s simultaneously lifeless and scenery chewing, offering little beyond boiler plate villainy, which ultimately prevents The Magnificent Seven from moving past the standard ideas of good versus evil in the Wild West and carrying any sort of metaphorical weight.
While the film’s ensemble most certainly pulls their weight, it seems as if it’s more a matter of strong actors breathing life into shallowly written characters rather than there being true depth to most of the ensemble. Fuqua and writer Nic Pizzolatto’s added cast diversity almost feels as if the film is checking off boxes rather than bringing something fresh and varied to the cast, especially when so many of them are filling stereotypical roles.
It seems as though Fuqua threw out any sense of moral grey area in order to more fully embrace the insanity of the film’s violence, which rips across the screen in as hard hitting of a manner that its PG-13 rating can allow. Dozens of men are mowed down by blazing pistols or chopped like dry wood with axes with nary a drop of blood seen spilled. It’s all a strange concoction of gruesome death and wide audience-friendly restraint, which is justified by the definitively white hat nature of its protagonists and hiss-inducing villainy of its black hat antagonists.
But Fuqua certainly delivers on action, until he eventually over-delivers. A mid-film shootout that puts the band of heroes in their first skirmish has all the trademark tension of peak Westerns and is brought with loads of style and punctuation, making every bullet hit feel like a freight train. It’s easily the film’s most tightly constructed action sequence and stands out as one of the film’s strengths. However, The Magnificent Seven’s 30 minute-long climax, which pits the seven and the remaining villagers against an army of faceless, no-good goons, is surely the most bombastic and numbing action climax on film since Zod and Superman flattened thousands of innocents in Man of Steel. By its end, The Magnificent Seven is no longer about morality or noble sacrifice; it’s about killing as many people as you can before you go out in a blaze of glory.
While no film is under any compunction to deliver a specific form of morality, it’s strange that a big Hollywood Western set so clearly on telling a tale about definable good vs evil seems to forget to include any real sense of gravitas or satisfaction by its end. By the time several main characters meet their violent ends in the film’s climax, it’s hard to fully care due to the one-note nature of the finale and the general lack of investment leading up to it.
There’s no sense of haunting loss like in Kurasawa’s Seven Samurai or noble sacrifice like the original Magnificent Seven (which has plenty of problems as a film on its own), just very standard big Hollywood thrills and stunts. They may be executed with top notch technical precision and brought to life with enough charm and attitude to fill barn, but they just fade away when the film finishes, like the Wild West of old.