While Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven is a remake of the 1960 film by the same name, I like to think of it as a direct reimagining of its original incarnation of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai from 1954. It bears noting that Kurosawa is, to this day, still Stephen Spielberg’s totemic inspiration behind his every endeavor, which calls to mind the question of how much that influences have made it into those films both thematically and narratively. I would say that the influence manifests like the whimsy of a film student’s interaction with the arguments that give sustenance to a story of camaraderie. A story like this one, especially, that arrives on contact with the bold charisma of a gunslinger. I’m calling it; if this sort of Western is an analog to another form of cinematic expression, it would be to anime a la Voltron or Gundam Wing – a case for the benefits of empathy.
It was a bold move not to add to the conversation on race in this film. Much has been said, a lot of it by Spike Lee, about how Tarantino in his 2012 western outing, Django Unchained, added too much to the conversation..Much of it, the final sin, vacuous even, and superfluous. If Tarantino’s film and his late 2015 follow-up, The Hateful Eight, are the bad trips of a racism harangue, then The Magnificent Seven is a hopeful impressionistic daydream.
Well. If a movie will be laced with responsibility, let it be to show a vision of a world where there truly is a racial harmony. At one point, after most of the group is formed, a character says, “What a merry band we are. Me a gray, Chisolm a blue, Billy, a mysterious man of the Orient, a drunk Irishman, a Texican, a female and her gentleman caller.” It matters that he finishes that thought with, “This is not going to end well.”
The story takes place during the early days of industrialism in the West, that mythic final frontier on which enterprising men could stake their claims. In 1879, one such industrialist of the corrupt variety (read: typical), Bartholomew Bogue, played competently by Peter Sarsgaard, rides in on the mining town of Rose Creek. He and his men are there to kill and destroy, for land and money of course, and they make their case in a brutal display at the local church. An entrance, if there ever were one.
Matt Bomer plays Matthew Cullen, a local man leading the people in an attempt to defend themselves. It fails, alas – but the story has to start somewhere. And poor Bomer, he stands as a sacrificial wicker to the inciting incident. I enjoy Bomer as actor, but I confess that part of that enjoyment is pretending he is always secretly Clark Kent. You’ll be surprised how much fun that is, especially in a film like this. (Please entertain this experiment the next time you watch Magic Mike).
I should say at this point that I am a huge fan of Sarsgaard’s villainous turn as Bogue. In a lesser actor’s hands it would surely have come off as schmaltzy overreacting, but it becomes clear by the first frame he fills with his facial tics and the cold, muted psychosis in his glare that Sarsgaard was born to play this role. This matters as a case for the importance of a well formed villain. A good one will elevate a mediocre story while a bad one will drag down the writing of an Oscar-winning script. Sarsgaard, here, provides us a meeting ground of two ideas, their cynosure depicted in the balance between minimal enough writing to allow a thespian to breathe but sharp-enough writing that he has something to sink his teeth into. The script by Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk, I’m happy to report, confidently rolls out that carpet for our champion of duplicity.
Anyway, the introduction our titular crew comes when Bogue and his crew depart. In comes Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), a warrant officer from Wichita, Kansas, who the wife of the slain Matthew Cullen entreats for service. Haley Bennett is Emma Cullen, the determined widow who has already hardened since last we saw her – a weeping mess over the corpse of her husband.
This isn’t Bennett’s first time starring in a film with Washington. She had a small part in 2014’s The Equalizer, also a Fuqua film. This time, however, she gets to rise above the status of distressed damsel to arrive, welcome, a fully realized woman empowered through her courage to not only press on in the face of despair and darkness, but to meet them with both fists upheld.
It isn’t her persistence that impressed Chilsom, however, it’s the familiar name of Bartholomew Bogue.
Take heart, I won’t spoil that revelation.
“WHAT WE LOST IN THE FIRE…”
I haven’t seen a western like this since Young Guns.. The Posse tried, but the characters didn’t have that magic chemistry.
In Fuqua’s tale, we follow Chisolm as he puts together his crew after taking the job offered by Cullen. With him in the beginning is her, as well as a friend, “her gentleman caller”, Teddy Q (Luke Grimes). Chisolm enlists magician/QuickDraw Josh Faraday first. This is the Chris Pratt character I remember being so interested in when I saw the first trailer for the film. A fan of his back when he was a fat loser on Parks And Recreation, I’ve come to admire Pratt’s body of work. Indeed, his chronicles one of the most exceptionally expansive trajectories I’ve seen an actor’s career take in recent years. Perhaps one of the greats of his generation, you can almost track the watermark of when he became aware of his own talent and potential. I’d wager this happened on-screen, and maybe it’s a scene he refers back to in private for inspiration when embarking on a new project. For Pratt, a case is made for the journey aspect of becoming a character. He takes something from them in the same way that we take something from the films he appears in. But if I could only say one thing positive about Chris Pratt, I would use that opportunity to note that he has become a master at the surprised look. The far away stare that speaks volumes in its self-sufficient brevity.
I smiled when Jack Horne showed up. Vincent D’onofrio seldom disappoints, and he’s having a blast in the role. This must be what Jeffrey Dean Morgan feels like playing Negan on the The Walking Dead, getting to chew on the lines like they’re the best cut of beef jerky – we’re all better for his immodesty. “To be in the service of others, with men like you that I respect.. Well, I shouldn’t have to ask for more than that.” It bears mention that he doesn’t glance at Red Harvest who is seated behind him, when he says that. But that’s the point, he doesn’t have to. He is talking to all of them, and you realize this at once when the early prophesy of their ragtag group is proven welcomely wrong.
The characters sort of change their appearance as the story progresses. Each of them arrive bearing a certain scruffiness, but as we get to know them they become cleansed in the process. Indeed, the film is as much about redemption as it is revenge. Chisolm, at one point says, “What we lost in the fire, we’ll find in the ashes.” This is what it didn’t have in common with Unforgiven. In that film, the principles became uglier as the story unfolded.
The writers have an incredible ear for dialogue, borders on the majestic. Consider the following exchange between Chisolm and Bogue:
Bogue says, in a flippant, smarmy way, “Chisolm? Should I know that name?” Chisolm, in the cool tongue way we’ve come to appreciate not only in this character, but in Washington’s always masterful delivery, “You should know it for your obituary.”
Of the others, Ethan Hawke, is sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux, Lee Byung-hun is knife-wielding precision artist Billy Rocks, Martin Sensmeier is Camanche warrior Red Harvest, and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo has the time of his life as Mexican outlaw known minimalistically as Vasquez. They’re a band of all stripes. And hey, good news; there’s even a coward in their ranks!
The action scenes are a sight to behold, another fond reminder of Young Guns. But they are not above a bit of pettiness, to be sure (wait for inevitable Good Indian vs. Bad Indian showdown).
Wait for a series of Home Alone boobytraps. There are knife fights. Motorcross-by-horse style shooting stunts. There are heroic deaths. This is not all played for smaltz. I promise.
See The Magnificent Seven, now available on Blu-Ray and DVD, if nothing else, for its ambition. See it for the hope it represents, the conversations it engages rather than the ones it avoids. See it as if you didn’t have to see it all, as an audio track of nothing but the dialogue. It’s the closest you’ll come to experiencing life as a blind person who has discovered the reverence of essential beauty.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.