Remakes inevitably suffer from comparison to their predecessors. This version of the Magnificent Seven will not be an exception. It has star power, and entertainment value, but it seems to be short in stature because of the times in which it is made and the demands of contemporary audiences. We need our action to be spectacular and the visualization to be inventive. The problem is, with such a traditional setting, it sometimes feels a bit anachronistic. Characters playing out the events of the story in 1879, sound like they might have been born in 1979. The touches of humor and the self referential moments left me a little less impressed, despite some excellent tweaks to the well known story.
Let’s begin with the stuff that works and helps this movie cross the line as a winner. Denzel Washington is the closest thing we have to a movie star working today. His presence in a film can still bring out an audience and his acting chops are top notch. The only film star comparable would be Tom Cruise, and I think Mr. Cruise is more limited in what an audience is willing to see him in these days. Of course Mr. Washington is also playing in the action field now more than any other genre also. Cast as the lead cowboy in this band of mercenaries, he is completely believable in spit of question of his heritage. You never once think that he is not exactly who he says he is and there is no question that the people he encounters grant him the respect he clearly communicate to all that he deserves. It is a credit to the makers of the film that they don’t exploit what might have been a distracting non-issue and instead focus on the story at hand.
Ethan Hawke’s character is also a plus in the film. We get a little more back story than we ever got with Robert Vaughn in the 1960 version, and it makes most of his actions seem more reasonable. As a deadly sniper who survived the Civil War, his struggle with PTSD seems understandable even if it is only partially fleshed out. His friendship with an Asian assassin in the old west is a little more difficult to swallow, although it offers a nice relationship and provides quite a bit of entertainment. Also worthy are the characters played by Vincent D’Onofrio, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Martin Sensmeier. They make up a worthy second tier trio of mercenaries. I liked Byung-hun Lee perfectly well in the film but as I said, his character is one of two that draws attention to the fact that we are watching a story made by people trying to entertain us any way they can.
The second character that sticks out a bit like a sore thumb is Chris Pratt’s gambling cowboy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad he is in the film and I enjoyed his performance just fine. The trouble is that the character is so overdone in an effort to make the film a little more hip that the story loses much of it’s organic nature. It screams for attention and the manner in which the character talks is more in keeping with the Space Opera Pratt is noted for than the Horse Opera we are watching. His story is written more for the audience than for the events in the film.
There are moments in the reworking of the story that I thought fit well. The events that propel the character of Emma Cullen to reach out for help from such dangerous men was well set up and executed. She develops as a character only so far however and in the end her role becomes a plot device rather than someone we can care about and relate to. I will say however that the audience I saw this with was enthusiastic about her piece of action at the climax of the film. Peter Sarsgaard as the villain of the piece is suitably despicable, although the capricious manner in which he treats his employees would make most people think twice about taking a job from him.
I could have lived without the backstory for Denzel’s Chisolm, I think he would be more interesting as a cypher but it does provide a bit more logical reason for him to take on the task that he himself describes as impossible. The planning components of the final battle are reminiscent of some of the same things that were found in “Seven Samurai”, the film that was remade as the first “Magnificent Seven”. That battle sequence does go on quite a while and it is one of the places that the action sometimes feels over the top. I did not count the number killed but it would certainly approach two hundred. I can say however that the deaths that occur in the group seem relevant and well earned.
This is the final score of the late James Horner, who died last year far too young but with a set of films on his vita that would make anybody proud. Two nights ago, in preparation for an upcoming podcast, I watched “Battle Beyond the Stars”, a Roger Corman cheapy Star Wars wannabe that uses the plot of The Magnificent Seven as it’s source. One of the gems in that otherwise minor film is the score, by a young James Horner. His career is thus somewhat bookended by this story. This score is not as iconic as either of those other two films but it does convey some seriousness and in a couple of places, the grandeur of the west. There is a continuing echo of the classic Elmer Bernstein theme in several spots, but that tune is not fully utilized until the end of the film.
I’m a sucker for a western, so my opinion on this was likely to be pretty high to begin with. It is a solid entertainment and a reasonable facsimile of a traditional western, but it has a few elements that make it feel more manufactured than it ought to be. I look forward to discussing it with my fellow bloggers next week, but for mow I will say you should definitely see it. There are not likely to be a lot of westerns in Denzel’s future career, and that is a shame because he fits in the saddle really well.