FILM REVIEW – THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. With Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee. Written by Richard Wenk, Nic Pizzolatto. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Rated PG-13 for extended and intense sequences of Western violence, and for historical smoking, some language and suggestive material. 132 minutes.
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is a movie with an interesting pedigree. A remake of the 1960 western which starred Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, among others, that film was itself a remake of the 1954 masterpiece by Akira Kurosawa, “The Seven Samurai.” If the 1960 film was no masterpiece, it was a successful and solidly entertaining film. However, it does not carry such historic weight that a new version is unthinkable.
As before, the story involves a small village of farmers and families being terrorized by outsiders. In this case it’s Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) who wants all their land for his mining operation, and will do whatever it takes to get it. After he and his thugs murder several people and burn down the church, the newly-widowed Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) goes out to hired some gunmen to defend the town. Asked if she wants vengeance she said she’s seeking righteousness but will settle for revenge.
Thus the team assembles, led by Chisolm (Denzel Washington), who puts together a modernly diverse crew. There is no racial or ethnic bar here. What’s interesting is that the crew reflects the fault lines of the 19th century. There are men who fought on either side of the Civil War, including Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), a Southern sharpshooter. The presence of Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a Mexican, evokes the Alamo, especially when he tells one of the others who lost family there that it might have been at the hands of his own grandfather, fighting for the other side. Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee) reminds us of how Chinese immigrants were treated after being brought over for cheap labor, while the Native American Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) doesn’t require much elaboration as to that history, especially when they are joined by trapper Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), who is reminded that the government isn’t paying a bounty for scalps any longer. Even cardsharp Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt) is more than a western cliché in that he finds himself indebted to Chisolm, who has redeemed his horse.
The key to this tale in all its versions is that the characters have to be individuals and we have to care about their various stories as they pull together for the big showdown. Most of the townspeople and all of the villains except Bogue are essentially pawns who either triumph or get killed as the plot requires. Although the characters are sketched in broad strokes, the script and the cast work to ensure that they are distinct.
Director Antoine Fuqua has shown himself a director who can craft action films that are both muscular and smart. He provides the necessary gunfire and explosions, but never at the expense of dumbing down the material. It’s no surprise that actors like Hawke and Washington (who won his Oscar for Fuqua’s “Training Day”) come back to work with him again and again.
“The Magnificent Seven” is an old-time western with a modern sensibility. Unlike all too many remakes, it fully justifies its existence.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.