Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven is somehow both more and less interesting than its predecessor, John Sturges’ 1960 classic of the same name. In Fuqua’s hands, this familiar story of Old West gun men being hired to protect a small town is infinitely more inclusive, featuring a black lead (Denzel Washington), female co-lead (Haley Bennett) and an Asian (Byung-hun Lee), Native American (Martin Sensmeier) and Mexican (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) in the primary supporting cast. The character development is more nuanced, odds stacked even higher against the titular seven, tension more palpable and action sequences better choreographed.
In short, the remake is the more technically accomplished film in just about every way and delights with its wonderfully diverse cast, yet it bizarrely also feels more old-fashioned and morally simplistic than the original. In 1960, The Magnificent Seven was the story of men living by an ethical code and defending the defenseless against a surprisingly understandable villain; in 2016, it is a straight-up revenge story targeting a practical mustache-twirling villain (a terrific Peter Sarsgaard).
Not that I knew any of that while watching Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven last night. In truth, all I knew of the 1960 original was what most people do: 1. It’s a western version of Seven Samurai; 2. It has one of film’s all-time great scores from Elmer Bernstein. Check and check. That’s been enough to get me by on film trivia night over the years. However, I’d never actually seen the film, thus freeing me up to largely enjoy or not enjoy Fuqua’s remake/re-imagining on its own terms. Thankfully, I fell into the “enjoy” category. As many have already punned, this new Magnificent Seven falls well short of genuine magnificence, but it’s at least a moderately good time, elevated by stellar co-lead turns from Washington, Bennett (aka, Not-Jennifer Lawrence) and Chris Pratt, who’s far more convincing here as a badass rogue than he ever was in Jurassic World.
But then I had to go and watch the original this morning when I noticed it was just put up for streaming on the Turner Classic Movie Channel App. Frankly, when viewed through 2016 eyes the original Magnificent Seven falls short of magnificence as well. The script repeatedly loses track of its characters (particularly Robert Vaughn’s gun-shy Lee and James Coburn’s knife expert Britt). As such, when several of them inevitably die during the big finale it has all the emotional resonance of a wet fart. Only one woman (Rosenda Monteros’ Petra) has a speaking part, and even then she’s the token love interest stuck looking up at the target of her affection with a rapturous gaze so lovelorn it borders on the deranged. Plus, the main villain, Eli Wallach’s Calvera, is a little too clearly a white man playing a Mexican.
However, if viewed through 1960 eyes I can easily see how this Magnificent Seven would have seemed like just the coolest thing ever at the time, with Yul Brenner’s black-clad leader and Charles Bronson’s morally conflicted follower standing out as the epitome of compelling masculinity. Also, it’s nearly impossible to watch this film, and not walk away humming the Bernstein score. Hell, I’m playing it in my head at this very moment:
The set-ups for the two films are broadly similar: Two gunmen (Brenner and Steven McQueen in the original, Washington and Pratt in the new one) meet while helping the other dispense justice, and they are subsequently recruited by representatives of a nearby village which has come under siege. Using the promise of a small financial return as incentive, they then recruit several more ruffians to their cause before ultimately mounting a grand defense against the bad guys.
In the original, the village is an agricultural spot in Mexico, and the villain and his men are robbing them of their food; in the remake, the village is somewhere in the western US, and it has been overrun by an evil-with-a-capital-“E” robber baron who will either buy the land outright at a bargain basement price or kill everyone on the land and take it for himself. Several of the young farmers from the Mexican village are the ones who recruit Brenner to help protect their home from the marauders; a vengeful widow (Bennett) and her male companion recruit Washington. Both times, the reluctant gunfighter is swayed when the needy party admits they are offering everything they have as payment, earning the following great line in response: “I have been offered a lot for my work, but never everything.”
In truth, though, the new Magnificent Seven, with a screen play by Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) and Richard Wenk, seems to borrow just as much from The Coen Brothers’ True Grit (which was itself a remake) as it does from the original Seven. Haley Bennett’s gun-slinging Emma Cullen, whose husband is murdered in front of the whole town by the villain in the film’s opening scene, particularly comes off as an older version of Hailee Steinfeld’s Mattie Ross.
Beyond that, the entire second half of the film oddly recalls the second half of Saving Private Ryan, with Washington and company’s planning and execution of their plan resembling Tom Hanks and company’s planning/defense of that damn bridge, right down to the familiar “Okay, we’ll use explosives here, and have you set up as a sniper over there” story beats. That’s also the part of Saving Private Ryan which is most often criticized as feeling too conventional. However, there is such a simple joy to seeing a plan come together (just ask Hannibal of the A-Team) and then kind of falling apart, and witnessing this Magnificent Seven’s dismantling of a small army certainly holds your attention, even if the parade of nameless redshirt falling off of horses does grow a tad tedious.
But there’s not enough meat on the bones. There are large personalities, fantastic actors who you sometimes struggle to understand (I don’t even know how to properly describe D’Onofrio’s wispy voice in this film), big explosions, cool gunfights, noticeable character arcs for just about every major player and a cleverly crafted revenge story which only fully reveals itself in the closing moments. However, there’s nothing truly transcendent on display, no real intra-team tension (other than some basic teasing), precious little moral complication. Every time you expect something slightly more profound to occur, such as when D’Onofrio begins to discuss his dead wife and kids or Washington kneels to pray at a church on the eve of the battle, the conversation turns or the scene stops.
It’s as if Fuqua sensed there was a better film to be made, but aspired to stick to a Saturday matinee western formula, the kind he used to watch with his family as a kid, as he told THR:
I grew up loving Westerns. I used to watch those movies with my grandmother and my mother. That was our thing: watching Westerns, especially Magnificent Seven. [My grandmother] loved Yul Brynner. But also that movie was the first time I saw a film that seemed to want to deal with prejudice. The first time I saw Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen decide to bury the Native Americans in the graveyard — for no reason except to do the right thing — I remember that having a profound effect on me. And they were just the coolest guys I’d ever seen.
Oddly, though, in this new film there’s nothing remotely similar to that graveyard sequence, where Brynner and McQueen decide to give a Native American a proper burial despite pushback from the townspeople. That’s but one small example of how in remaking a childhood favorite Fuqua modernized it in so many impressive way but lost the soul of the story in the process. Thankfully for him, he cast Denzel Washington as the lead because Denzel Washington is amazing.
THE BOTTOM LINE
[SPOILER ALERT FROM 1960] In the original Magnificent Seven, some members in the town actually turn on the heroes when it is revealed the only reason the villain is robbing from them is because he and his men are starving. Capitulating as a means of survival, townspeople allow the villain and his men to secretly invade before ambushing the heroes. However, the villain doesn’t immediately begin a murder spree. Instead, he allows the heroes to actually leave with their lives and guns in tact, transporting them back over the border into Texas. He is clearly taking from the weak, but he is also starving and would prefer not to kill. Their choice to return and fight anyway (on behalf of those who remained loyal to them) is one of moral obligation, not revenge, but when the villain asks, with his dying breath, why they returned his question goes crucially unanswered. Moreover, the youngest member of the seven recognizes the inherent sadness of their lifestyle and abandons his ambitions of being a legendary gun men to settle down with a good woman.
No such plot twists or complications occur in the new film, but a bunch of shit blows up real nice, Denzel Washington kills it as the stoic hero with a secret and the camera constantly cuts to Chris Pratt for yet another one-liner. It’s perfectly diverting, but not exactly memorable. Or maybe I’m just mad they made me wait until the closing credits to hear the full Elmer Bernstein theme. There are hints of it along the way, but you don’t get full on Bernstein until the very end. For shame, sir.