Let’s just get this out of the way off the bat: there is no better version of this story than the original, original version—Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece Seven Samurai. Six years later, John Sturges made a genuinely entertaining Hollywood remake, The Magnificent Seven, but it doesn’t hold a candle to what came before it. In 1998, I sat down to watch Pixar’s second feature, A Bug’s Life and recognized the framework almost immediately as that of the Kurosawa piece, reworked to a large degree, but unmistakable. And now we get director Antoine Fuqua’s (Training Day, The Equalizer, Olympus Has Fallen) fairly faithful take on the Westernized The Magnificent Seven, the story of a small community overrun by rich, powerful people who would seek to do them harm, who hire a band of seven misfits to protect them and make a last stand for the town’s survival.
The film opens as it closes—violently. The mining town of Rose Creek has come under the control of industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) whose men interrupt a meeting in the town’s one church and start randomly shooting down the locals and setting fire to the house of worship. Knowing the townspeople don’t have the training or numbers to beat the company men, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) heads out looking to hire any competent gunslinger to protect Rose Creek, after her husband (Matt Bomer) is shot dead in the street. She first locates a bounty hunter named Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington, in his first Western), who in terms seeks out certain known quantities, while stumbling upon lesser-known hired guns, to form a small army to not only defend the town but teach the locals how to fight as well.
The resulting seven are about as diverse and interesting as any film ensemble has been of late, and includes Chris Pratt as drunken gambler Josh Faraday; Ethan Hawke as Chisolm’s old pal Goodnight Robicheaux, who is accompanied by his constant companion Billy Rocks (the great South Korean actor Byung-hun Lee, from I Saw the Devil, The Good, the Bad, the Weird, and both G.I. Joe movies), whose weapons of choice are silvery knives; Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as the Mexican outlaw Vasquez; Vincent D’Onofrio as old-timer Jack Horne (something of a blend of Walter Brennan and Santa Claus); and Martin Sensmeir as the Native American Red Harvest, with his deadly bow-and-arrow and terrifying face paint.
Working from an updated screenplay from Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto (“True Detective”), this modern-day The Magnificent Seven seems compelled to dwell on motivation, particularly on the question of why Chisolm has actually taken this gig. We’re reminded repeatedly (practically with big neon signs foreshadowing it) that he has a shared past with Bogue and is looking to remind him of it, so the film essentially boils down to their final confrontation. That being said, one of the genuine standouts here is Bennett’s tough-as-nails Emma, who refuses to simply let the men she’s hiring take over and push her or her fellow citizens around. As she says to Chisolm, “ I seek righteousness. But I’ll take revenge.”
When all is said in done, there are only a couple large-scale, high-bodycount battles in The Magnificent Seven, but put together they are some of the bloodiest, most vicious fight scenes I’ve ever seen in a PG-13-rated movie. I only mention because the family-friendly rating might convince some parents that it’s safe to bring young children to this one. But if you know anything about Fuqua, he doesn’t tend to play in a safe sandbox, and he doesn’t miss an opportunity to mow down bad guys and innocents alike.
I love that Training Day co-stars Washington and Hawke (both were nominated for Oscars; Washington won) play old friends here. There is something warmly familiar about the way they are together, and it’s quite refreshing in a film where every character is trying to out tough-guy everyone else, to see these two very different men share a certain amount of camaraderie that feels genuine. In an ensemble of this size, it’s difficult for the filmmakers to allow us to spend any real time with any one character in an effort to deliver something beyond a series of easily identifiable traits. Character development is tough to do in any type of action movie, let alone one with a dozen or so main characters, but Fuqua does manage to make it happen to a noticeable degree more than you might assume.
The desolate landscapes (most of the film was shot around Baton Rouge, Louisiana) aren’t meant to look vast and beautiful; they look isolated, bordering on downright lonely. The town of Rose Creek looks like a series of facades put together by thumbtacks, and falls apart about that easily. Even still, Fuqua manages to capture the age-old mystique of the Western with a somewhat modern sensibility, without abandoning many of the classic tropes. Sarsgaard’s Bogue is a bit too much of a dandy to be truly threatening, but he’s a strong enough actor to keep us interested in what his connection is to Chisolm and how the two are going to square off in the middle of town.
The Magnificent Seven is a flawed film, to be sure, but the sum total of the personalities involved in putting it together kept me locked in and amused for the duration. I think it was the final battle that definitively won me over. It feels like every weapon ever manufactured by that period is in play with rifles, pistols, mounted machine guns, knives, arrows, and hatchets going all at once. It helps that our seven heroes have near-perfect aim, which is not to say that lives aren’t lost on both sides of the fight. What the movie lacks in edge, it mostly makes up for in energy and chemistry among the band of mercenaries, and that’s just enough to give it a modest recommendation.