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Not So Magnificent

Denzel Washington
Denzel Washington
Columbia Pictures
 133 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by:  Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke
Magnificent Seven

For the second time in little more than a month, a major Hollywood studio has tried to remake a classic from the golden era of spectacular epics, and, for the second time, the results have been disappointing. This time, director Antoine Fuqua and his favorite actor Denzel Washington try their luck updating John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven. And, while the results aren’t a complete disaster like the woefully inept Ben-Hur wound up being, the question remains: why even try.

Of course, film buffs will point out that Sturges’ film was itself a remake of an even better movie, Akiro Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, a film that translated easily from feudal Japan to the 19th century American West. But, American filmgoers of the late 1950’s had virtually no opportunity to see a Japanese film, so, for them, The Magnificent Seven was, for all practical purposes, an original. By now, however, the Sturges film has been a television staple for decades and Elmer Bernstein’s theme is perhaps one of the most recognizable movie themes of all time.

Another major problem with the original is with its casting and the racial messaging in the original script. Besides Yul Brynner, a bona fide superstar, the producers primarily cast an assortment of up-and-coming actors best known for their television work: Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, and Robert Vaughn. However, there were two notable exceptions that would give a 2016 casting director nightmares. The classically trained New York Jewish actor Eli Wallach, played the main villain, a stereotypical, unshaved, thickly accented Mexican bandit named Calvera. And, in the only attempt to put some diversity in the heroic band, one of their members was a younger Mexican played by, of all people, a German actor, Horst Buchholz.

Fuqua and screenwriters Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolato kept the essence of the original Magnificent Seven plot but went in the complete opposite direction in regard to casting. And, it’s a great plot that was great when Kurosawa wrote it and has been reliably good in every iteration since then. The setting in the new movie has been moved north of the border where a small New Mexico town is terrorized by the ruthless, greedy land baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who is trying to run the farmers off their land to accommodate his literally booming gold mine. After her husband is gunned down by Bogue’s hired hands, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) gathers what money she has and goes in search of some gunmen she can hire to help defend the town.

Eventually, she hires a group of gunslingers, not surprisingly seven in total, led by the mysterious bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) and his first “recruit” gambler/gunman Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt). They accompany Emma back to her town, where they rid it of Bogue’s handful of hired goons and then try to arm and train some of the local farmers to help them stand up to Bogue and the army of gunfighters they know he’s going to bring.

Instead of populating the movie with the original film’s stereotypical (and offensive by today’s standards) Mexican villains played by Eli Wallach and a host of anonymous stuntmen (many of whom did double or triple duty in the original, getting gunned down on multiple occasions), Fuqua has populated the new Magnificent Seven with equally anonymous, generic stuntmen, all but one of them white. The exception is the Native American tracker who, not surprisingly, eventually has a throwdown with the Seven’s own Native American, Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). If Fuqua avoids the Frito Bandito stereotypes, his portrayal of the Native Americans is equally stereotyped. Even though Martin Sensmeier is actually Native American, his character, Red Harvest, replete with face paint and Mohawk, would have come from the backlot of any 1950’s TV Western.

The rest of the cast is ultra-carefully chosen for racial diversity. In addition to Washington and Pratt, they include a former Confederate, Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), a Korean, Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), an Antonio Banderas-styled Texican gunman, Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and an old geezer, Jack Horne (Vincent d’Onofrio in the Wilfred Brimley role).  And, although the Seven are an all-male septet, Emma Cullen gets in the middle of the action as well, becoming sort of an “honorary” Eighth. Meanwhile, Bartholomew Bogue (who is absent for most of the film) is a generic robber baron industrialist who brags of being better than John D. Rockefeller because he’s willing to get his hands dirty to take what he wants. Actually, Peter Sarsgaard’s bemused performance is one of the better aspects of the film.

The politically correct casting wouldn’t be that much of a problem if the relationship among the characters was realistic. While there definitely were all sorts of ethnic types in the West of the 1870’s, they didn’t all get along in the locker room camaraderie manner that the Seven do. These guys engage in a bit of good natured ribbing, but explicit racial taunts and prejudice, either among the Seven, the townspeople, or even the villains, are conspicuously absent.

But, what should viewers make of The Magnificent Seven viewed strictly on its own merits and not as a depiction of racial attitudes of the era or as a remake of a beloved Western classic? Well, it’s merely okay. The main draw is the star power, of course. Denzel Washington is perfect for playing calm determination, much as Yul Brynner was in the original, while Chris Pratt’s rather infectious charm works well in the role that made Steve McQueen a star a half century ago. Among the supporting members of the Seven, Vincent d’Onofrio has a lot of fun in his best feature film role since he was possessed by an alien in Men in Black. The action scenes go way, way, way overboard, with approximately 200 people, most of them Bogue’s extras plus a few faceless townspeople, being dispatched in a 20-minute final showdown that resembles the D-Day landing in Saving Private Ryan. When the handful of named actors meet their demises in the movie, the death scenes are drawn out to almost silly lengths.

The most telling difference between the new Magnificent Seven and the original is one famous scene from the original that makes its way into the remake. In the first movie, James Coburn played a cowboy who was faster with a knife than most gunmen were with their six shooters, and, in an early scene, he outdrew an obnoxious cowboy who called him out. It was a terrific bit of minimal acting on Coburn’s part, excellently staged by Sturges. The same scene takes place, more or less, in the remake, with Billy Rocks doing the honors. Only this time, he’s working with Goodnight Robicheaux, who is taking bets on who is going to win the fight. The actual moment of truth is overshadowed by all of Ethan Hawke’s showboating and some rushed editing by Fuqua to get the scene over with.

I’ll be the first to admit that my feelings about the new version of The Magnificent Seven are clouded by my admiration for the original, down to the moment the closing credits began and Elmer Bernstein’s familiar theme replaced James Horner’s far more generic notes heard in the body of the movie. Great Westerns aren’t remnants of Hollywood’s past; just last month, I saw a modern day Western, Hell or High Water, that more than holds its own against earlier films. But, taken on its own merits, The Magnificent Seven simply isn’t that magnificent. It doesn’t do anything major wrong (other than the mere fact of its existence), but it’s a lot like late era John Wayne movies, bereft of real bite and skating by on the star’s charisma. Denzel Washington has plenty of charisma, certainly enough to carry this movie with the help of his supporting cast, but it lacks the spark that his last team-up with Antoine Fuqua, The Equalizer, had. This time around Washington and Fuqua aren’t anywhere near magnificent, merely adequate.

In this scene, Denzel Washington and the rest of the Seven let the bad guys know they mean business.

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The Magnificent Seven (2016) on IMDb