Let’s get this out of the way first: The Magnificent Seven is a remake of an iconic 1960 Western of the same name and featuring splendid performances from Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner, among others. And that film is itself a retelling of a classic Akira Kurosawa film called Seven Samurai, which is eminently watchable with a powerful lead performance by the great Toshiro Mifune. Each brings its own sensibility to the core story of a group of mercenaries hired to protect a village from exploitation by an evil gang.
In all three films, the seven warriors are anything but magnificent, each with their problems, challenges and oft-peculiar reasons to risk their lives to protect a town of people they don’t even know. It’s the nobility of their quest that makes them magnificent because many of them are losers or outlaws themselves. It’s also an exploration of the flaws of men who perform heroic deeds, because heroes are defined by their actions, not their words.
In the 1960 The Magnificent Seven there’s a wonderful shot near the beginning of the film where an Indian has died and no-one in the Western town is willing to bury them in the town cemetery, for fear of a small group of bigots who insist the graveyard is for white people only. Tanner (Steve McQueen) and Adams (Yul Brynner) finally drive the hearse wagon to boot hill, guns at the ready, and the townspeople fall in alongside to watch. That’s really the entire story in a single scene – flawed men doing heroic deeds – and it reverberates throughout the entire movie.
In the most recent version of The Magnificent Seven, it’s a small Texan town called Rose Creek that’s home to a few hundred hearty settlers trying to make a go of it in the lawless West and a productive gold mine. The gold mine’s enough to draw evil industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), and he’s a cold blooded killer with a posse plenty big enough to control the town and outlying farms. The townspeople are unable to decide on the most appropriate response and it’s up to recently widowed Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) to track down and hire a group of mercenaries to defend the town and get rid of Barty Bogue.
She hires the mysterious bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) and he assembles a team starting with gambler and ne’er do well Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), and includes Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), the mysterious Asian assassin Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Ruffo) and the Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier).
While Chisolm is the head strategist and leader of the group, it’s Robicheaux who is the most interesting character, a Civil War sharpshooter suffering from PTSD. He’s a superb shot, but his hand’s not always steady and he quite visibly cannot still his mind enough to truly focus on the present moment. Denzel Washington also delivers a nuanced performance that’s been sorely missing in his other recent film roles.
The one actor I was disappointed by was Chris Pratt. He delivers what’s becoming his signature sarcastic performance and an over-the-top last scene that was an audience favorite in the screening I attended, but felt inappropriate for the tone of the film. Pratt’s funny and oh-so-American in his snarky on-screen personality, but sometimes it’s okay for a scene to remain serious as a reflection of its tone.
Eminently watchable, The Magnificent Seven has a very predictable storyline, but that’s part of the appeal of a classic Western: the bad guy gets his comeuppance, justice is meted out and all is ultimately right in the world by the end of the last reel. Along the way, however, there is a lot of bloodshed. A lot. At least 100 people are killed on-screen, mostly bad guys, but it gets a bit numbing after a while.
I was prepared to dislike this remake because a lot of classic Westerns are difficult to update for modern times and sensibilities, but The Magnificent Seven survives that, albeit with some problems intact (notably the lack of any interesting female roles and the fact that Cullen gains screen time by virtue of becoming one of the vigilantes, a sort of magnificent eighth). Still, if you can handle the genre, the film offers an exciting story, some powerful action sequences, lots of scenes where justice is delivered and an entirely unsurprising but still satisfying ending. Definitely worth seeing.