The crowd at the showing I attended of the new Magnificent Seven was both sizeable, and quite old. The former was surprising – as I like to attend pre-shows yet don’t typically expect many others to go to them – but I suspect this was different, maybe because people really wanted just a plain good movie after the mixed summer. The latter was intriguing for much the same reason, though I think the explanation is a lot simpler: it was a Western. Two crowd-sourced observations that surprisingly encapsulate the basic idea of my thoughts on The Magnificent Seven; it’s just a good Western movie, if not necessarily anything super special.
The new Magnificent Seven is remake of the 1960 Western of the same name, which itself was a cowboy adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s legendary film Seven Samurai, which pretty much set the standard for all future “rag-tag team-up against bad guys” films and their derivatives. Directed by Antoine Fuqua, this new iteration of a well-worn movie walks the same familiar path as its predecessors. A small town is under siege. Hoping to get any kind of help, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennet) seeks out and hires bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) to defend the town. In order to do so, Chisolm gathers up a motley crew of scattered, gun-toting badasses to fight back against a veritable army of pillaging bad guys. The group, or more appropriately, the Magnificent Seven, is the amalgamation of ‘Wild West Starlord’ Josh Farraday (Chris Pratt), sharpshooter-with-a-troubled-past Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), knife-throwing assassin Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), bear-wearing-human-clothes Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), actual killer outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Comanche warrior with an awesome name, Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier).
The characters of the film aren’t very deep or complex, beyond a few stabs at emotional conflict and complexity with Chisolm and Robicheaux; though the movie has no need for its characters to be complex. They simply need to be enjoyable and distinct, and it’s clear that all the actors injected equal amounts effort and fun into their portrayals. Denzel Washington can be intense and charismatic in his sleep, so it comes as no surprise his bounty hunter holds the central role as the ostensible “leader” of the group, where he alternates between wittiness and commands. Chris Pratt is the lovable gambler responsible for most of the funny quips in the movie, and its a role that shows off Pratt’s growing Hollywood archetype as the goofy-yet-earnest everyman. Ethan Hawke and Byung-hun Lee, charge their characters with life and a history together that shows through their on-screen chemistry. Unfortunately, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Martin Sensmeier don’t get much time to show off, but they’re both likable in what we do see. Sensmeier especially pulls off his role as a badass Comanche warrior who is stoic foil to nearly everyone else. I say “nearly”, because Vincent D’Onofrio’s Jack Horne is a high-pitched weirdo hunter, who steals the scene with his off-kilter speech and hulking presence.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed that the principal cast of the new Magnificent Seven is comprised of a multi-ethnic cast, though it doesn’t (thankfully) seem to have received the kind of “attention” this kind of news usually generates. If somebody was worried that this kind of casting was to send some kind of political message, the movie itself doesn’t seem to care. Now there are quips and lines about ethnicity, but nothing outside of anything a movie cowboy might actually say about Lee’s Asian heritage or Sensmeier’s Native America origins, and I don’t think there is a single mention or allusion to the fact that Denzel Washington’s character is black. So on the surface, the movie is refreshingly apolitical. However, there are undertones of a modern take on the typical “Magnificent Seven Samurai” structure; typically in those kinds of movies, it’s a group of bandits, thieves or just a group of general criminals that terrorize the town. In this movie, the villain is a wealthy industrialist played by Peter Sarsgaard, who has a veritable army of cowboys at his disposal. It’s hard to deny the implication of a further meaning when a multi-ethnic group of flawed heroes try to save a small town from a rich white capitalist that wants the entire town for himself and his gold mine.
Fuqua knows how to keep the narrative brisk and the action intense. As the guy who directed Training Day and The Equalizer, that should really come as no surprise. Like those movies, Magnificent Seven is pretty no-frills on the story department, as it does just enough to establish the setting, characters and motivations to make you care. In terms of action movies, it’s better than most since you’ll actually feel some tension during intense fights and some genuine emotion when something does happen to a character, though don’t expect to shed any tears. The action itself is great, an explosive knit of well-directed cinematography and a lack of immersion-breaking CGI (except for some god-awful CGI at the very end) lends the shootouts and stunts a welcome, realistic punch. I appreciated how well the geography and movement of the action was maintained to always inform who was where, doing what, and why – particularly the film’s final set-piece that serves as a strong demonstration in keeping action scenes clear and comprehensible, with recognizable changes in position and stakes.
Although the film snob inside me is reeling to mention that this movie isn’t a “true” Western, as it lacks the extreme individualist tone that most Western classics possesses, I can’t dock the movie points for lacking that quality. Thinking back on it, the original Magnificent Seven would also be at fault for the same thing, which really underscores the fact that this new Magnificent Seven doesn’t really suffer from being a remake. The original itself was a remake and it too was just a good Wild West time at the movies, and not really a true “classic.” Both the original and this new movie are fun action romps that succeed in being just that, and little else. Some of the details and names change, but the formula is still solid and appealing. Watching a group of well-acted but broad characters get together for some action to save a group of beleaguered townsfolk doesn’t lose much appeal over time. Even without being elevated to some grander heights.
While not the greatest movie or Western out there, the new Magnificent Seven won’t leave you bored and you probably won’t regret going to see it in the theaters. You also might not remember it in a few weeks. But if it inspires you to see the original, Seven Samurai or any other classic Western, then it’ll have gone above and beyond its simple appeal.