Friday, November 15, 2019

"The Magnificent Seven" (2016): review

Directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, and Peter Sarsgaard, 2016's "The Magnificent Seven" is a fairly faithful remake of the 1960 film that starred Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, and James Coburn. Some effort was put into having the remake's characters correspond almost exactly to the characters from the older film (knife-thrower, shell-shocked veteran, etc.), but there are important differences in both the characters and the overall story. Sadly, this movie is also composer James Horner's final film; he died in a plane crash during the making of the film, but because he had completed most of the score very early on as a surprise for the director (Horner and Fuqua were close friends), his friend Simon Franglen was able to complete the score after Horner's death. The music references the tempo of the 1960 score but doesn't pay an open homage to it until the ending credits are rolling.

The Western town of Rose Creek has been taken over by robber-baron Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard), who has basically enslaved the locals, working them almost to death in his mines as he digs ever deeper for gold. The townspeople have had enough, and when Bogue and his henchmen murder several complainers, a call goes forth to find men who might be willing to fight for the townspeople's freedom. First answering the call is US Marshal Sam Chisholm (Washington), who at first isn't interested in helping the people of Rose Creek until he finds out who the source of all the trouble is. Along with Chisholm come gambler/gunslinger (and hobbyist magician) Joshua Faraday (Pratt), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Garcia-Rulfo), ex-Confederate sniper Goodnight Robicheaux (Hawke), and his knife-throwing compadre Billy Rocks (Lee). The group also tracks down formidable mountain man Jack Horne (D'Onofrio), and the seventh man to join the group is an ostracized Comanche warrior named Red Harvest.

The story is a simple one. The seven ride to Rose Creek, eliminate the token force of Bogue's men, and help prepare the cowering townspeople, most of whom have no idea how to shoot or otherwise fight, for the coming of Bogue and his army. The seven get hold of dynamite from the nearby mine, and they seed the town with traps, trenches, and fortified positions as they prepare to take a stand against impossible odds. Ostensibly, the men are motivated by money, but each man in truth has his own reasons for helping the people of Rose Creek. The only real question for the viewer is who, among the seven, will survive the upcoming fight.

It's been years since I saw the original "Magnificent Seven," and I don't remember much of it. In fact, I think the version I saw was dubbed in French; I must have watched it while I was studying in Switzerland and living with a family that had an extensive VHS-tape movie library. (This was the 1989-90 academic year, after all; VHS was king.) I specifically recall that one of the characters told a joke whose punchline was "Jusqu'ici, ça va; jusqu'ici, ça va," which translates "So far, so good; so far, so good." Chris Pratt's character tells the joke in the 2016 version, so I've been refreshed on both the joke and its punchline.

Jokiness is a major aspect of director Fuqua's movie. I was happy to see that much of the humor was politically incorrect: the racism of several of the white (and off-white) characters was overt and shameless, very much in the spirit of Clint Eastwood's Walt Kowalski in "Gran Torino," i.e., a racism that's there, and that's crude, but that, in the end, doesn't mean much because the men form a bond as they prepare for war and actually fight alongside each other. It's the sort of humor that would raise the hackles of today's ubiquitous and oversensitive cancel culture. It also constitutes only a minor part of the overall plot; Fuqua, in his films, tends to bring up racial issues without obsessively dwelling on them. Compare this movie to his "Training Day" (which, by the way, also starred Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke, both of whom have enjoyed working with Fuqua on several projects), a movie that also has a prominent black/white component but doesn't make race the central focus of the narrative. In "Seven," the humor extends beyond race to questions of class and education level; one funny exchange between Ethan Hawke's educated Robicheaux and Chris Pratt's uneducated Faraday highlights the difference between the cultured and the uncultured.

But while the interplay between and among the principals allowed for some decent character development (Billy Rocks, for example, gets enough screen time for us to learn he's not just a taciturn Korean knife-thrower), there were other moments in the film where development seemed a bit lacking. A possible romantic subplot between Faraday and Emma Cullen (Bennett), the beautiful, gutsy widow who brought the seven together, goes unexplored. Maybe, with so many characters on the screen, it's asking too much to expect fully fleshed-out characters, so we should be thankful for the character development we do get.

There were some painfully predictable moments as well. I might have noticed more of them had I had a fresh memory of the 1960 film. I knew, for example, that because the evil Bogue had an American Indian warrior working for him, that warrior would have a final encounter with Red Harvest for some Injun-on-Injun violence. Fuqua could have subverted our expectations there, but I guess the ethnic symmetry was just too tempting. When one of the seven gets cold feet and buggers out before the big battle, it was easy to predict that he would return in the nick of time, guns blazing. Aside from that, though, I had a hard time predicting who was going to survive the battle. Had I tried to play the odds, I might have lost a lot of money. And perhaps that's one of the film's virtues: the likability of a character did not equal plot armor. I was sad to see some of our heroes perish.

All in all, this was an entertaining movie, with plenty of gunfights, trick-shooting, horse-riding, explosions, and verbal twanginess to satisfy anyone jonesing for a good Western yarn. As remakes go, "Seven" may lack the heft and gravitas of the original, but that may also be because the 1960 film, which didn't actually do that well in the US box office when it came out, has gained a kind of cult status over the years. The new movie tells the same basic story, but slightly differently, and with a plot as simple as the plot in Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai," upon which both cowboy movies are based, you can't realistically expect cosmic-level profundity. So go into this film knowing you'll be in for a good ride. Root for the characters you hope will make it out, and mourn them when they don't. While I wouldn't rate "The Magnificent Seven" as highly as some of my favorite Westerns—like "Silverado" and "Unforgiven"—I think this was a very good effort, and one in which the cast all obviously had fun in their respective roles.

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