THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN Review
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Genre: Western, Action
One must admire the workman-like quality of a blockbuster not too artistically daring, but not too stupid. Antoine Fuqua is particularly good at making those “just right” films, never indicating any ambition to transcend light excitement and loud melodrama, by relying on charismatic talent like Denzel Washington, Denzel Washington, and Denzel Washington. Despite an often exhaustingly average career, his latest prospect, a remake of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, comes loaded with intrigue, featuring a great cast and valid contemporary context that gives the film a fighting chance. The film has so many opportunities to go above and beyond, but unfortunately doesn’t manage to take the biggest risks. However, it can’t be said that 2016’s THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN isn’t an exciting time at the movies with just a little extra to think about.
Whenever someone in a movie points out that they’re in a Mexican standoff
A sweaty Peter Sarsgaard walks on screen, small in frame but gargantuan in celebrity presence, peers over the unsuspecting, good natured Rose Creek — this is Bartholomew Bogue, an antagonist so evil that he doesn’t even raise his voice. The people of Rose Creek do not take kindly to him as he forces everyone out for the sake of their soon-to-be valuable land, spilling some blood in the process. Emma Cullen, a determined widow, and her, well, friend (Matt Bomer), want righteous justice for their people and town, and seek the help of a bounty hunter: the smart, deadly, teeth flashin’ Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington). With a personal urge to take Bogue down, Chisolm agrees and recruits six misfits and miscreants to help save Rose Creek.
If there’s one thing Antoine Fuqua can do consistently, it’s pull off some exciting action after barely managing to pedal out poorly covered drama. The opening scenes of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN cut around like an Edgar Wright film, nearly drowned out by a droning score. It’s disorienting, and evident of a lot of issues in modern mainstream filmmaking. While there might be something to these films’ jittery, jumpy editing and grand visuals that can be considered a movement down the line, for now, it’s just annoying. A lack of trust in actors or editors begets scenes that fail to establish anything without calling attention to its own mediocre self. But, guns drawn and our cast assembled in an AVENGERS-like fashion, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN eventually grows into the boots it previously failed to fill.
Firefighting was really weird back then
Fuqua combines his patented kinetic energy that saved recent films like THE EQUALIZER and SOUTHPAW with some classic cinematic kung-fu. One of the first full-band confrontations in Rose Creek makes an astonishing throwback use of Sergio Leone close-ups, utilizing sweaty, heat-warped depth of field. As bullets, arrows, and tomahawks fly, Fuqua gives his schizophrenic coverage a gameful purpose, cutting around various mini-fights within a larger one, playing with blocking and cross-over action. It’s blood-pumping, and is enough to save THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN almost entirely en masse as it continues through the second act and into the third.
However, without a doubt, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN’s strongest suit is its solid ensemble cast. Denzel Washington does his traditional magic, solidifying his status as a bona fide movie star with the ability to charm the pants off anyone dead or alive. Here, he pulls some STAGECOACH nonsense, hanging off the sides of horses as he domes fools, the silver-tongued devil bringing a timeless sass and confidence to the Western.
Denzel observing that “Uncle Denzel” meme from a distance
Surely, if he could, Washington would play all seven magnificent heroes, though technology just isn’t there yet. His deadly, smart aleck gang is instead filled with delightful character actors and action stars of a diverse palette. Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Byung-hun Lee handle individual character and presence within the gang, similar to OCEAN’S ELEVEN’s naturalism. They all have their individual quirks, weaknesses, and strengths, all contributing to an enjoyable collision of unique personalities. Ethan Hawke and Chris Pratt even manage to complete somewhat full character arcs by the end.
Martin Sensmeier and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo round out the crew as the requisite Native American and Mexican members, representing their people in a diverse melting pot with guns. Yet their backstories, seemingly so crucial to the backdrop of this post-Civil War romp, feel glazed over, when they should in some way drive the film forward. Their casting ends up functioning as subtext, rather than valid and prescient bumpers for the sociologically rich action pinball to bounce off of.
Damn it, Hawke. You KNOW how old timey photos work.
This is an issue that perhaps comes with development closer to actual production. Screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto (TRUE DETECTIVE) is certainly a fitting voice to tackle a film like this, not only because of his talent, but for his attention to detail with characters and worlds. Why remake THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN outside of needing a tentpole release within a trusty genre glove? The timeliness and relevance to America in its current state practically melts off Peter Sarsgaard’s forehead. To write characters representing all voices and skin colors of the American rainbow is such a bold and earnestly honorable move that could’ve rang with more truth in the hands of a studio that fully considered the art. By the final act, Sensmeier and Garcia-Rulfo disappear, stuck in shootouts or battling the only other minorities in the film, wasting potential for some solid, tragic commentary on a weak, quick confrontation.
With elements of a progressive nature, it’s easy to understand how this remake earns its place. This is what art is for, after all, and a little recontextualization never killed anyone. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN may only be one small step for man at the end of the day, but steps made certainly aren’t steps lost. And the fact that this thing is actually quite fun is the most ringing endorsement we can lob at Antoine Fuqua these days. This film is destined to be aired at 3 PM on a Saturday on USA or TNT, two or so years from now. It may not be high art, but films like these can be appreciated regardless. Besides, the fact that it mutters something special and important under its breath could ensure its place in our memories, dusting off that classic thematic score for an honorable purpose. Or maybe we just want more Denzel. It could be both.