Sunday, September 25, 2016
“Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua’s bloodless, bullet-riddled remake of the classic western “The Magnificent Seven” (1960) lacks both its prestigious predecessor’s ultra-cool pugnacity under fire and its complex character development. Nevertheless, while it doesn’t eclipse the first-class Yul Brynner & Steve McQueen shoot’em up, neither does the new “Seven” embarrass itself as some remakes such as “Ben-Hur.” Loaded for bear, with a triple-digit body count, and rawhide performances by Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, and Ethan Hawke, Fuqua’s “Magnificent Seven” (*** OUT OF ****) qualifies as an entertaining, above-average, horse opera. Shunning a scene-for-scene rehash of the original, “True Detective” scenarist Nic Pizzolatto and “Expendables 2” scribe Richard Wenk have shifted the setting from Mexico to America, as well as created fresh characters in no way related to anybody else in the three earlier “Magnificent Seven” sequels. Interestingly, in changing the physical setting, Fuqua’s film resembles the short-lived CBS-TV series “The Magnificent Seven” (1998-2000) where the seven defended a frontier town against outsiders. Similarly, in both the television show and Fuqua’s version, a woman is responsible for recruiting the seven. For the record, director John Sturges’ “The Magnificent Seven” was itself a remake of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s landmark film. If retooling a samurai saga as a sagebrusher sounds bizarre, consider this: Sergio Leone’s groundbreaking Spaghetti western “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964) with Clint Eastwood was a remake of another Kurosawa samurai slash’em-up “Yojimbo” (1961) again with Toshirô Mifune. Furthermore, later in 1964, American director Martin Ritt adapted yet another Kurosawa yarn “Rashomon” (1950) into the Paul Newman & William Shatner western “The Outrage.” Incidentally, science fiction aficionados should know that George Lucas has said that Kurosawa’s film “The Hidden Fortress” (1958), served as inspiration for his own historic “Star Wars” franchise.
The original “Magnificent Seven” took place in Mexico. Seven mercenaries who were down on their luck accepted a gold eagle--$20--for six weeks to safeguard a destitute farming village from the depredations of marauding banditos. Calvera and his bandits would strike during harvest, but leave the farmers with adequate food to survive until they returned to plunder anew. The “Magnificent Seven” reboot relocates the action to a traditional American western town. Malignant capitalist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard of “Black Mass”) plans to buy up all the property in the town of Rose Creek to mine gold. As the story unfolds, Bogue visits the townspeople at their church where they have assembled to settle this intolerable predicament. The mustache-twirling Bogue offers them $20 each for their land parcels. Furthermore, he stipulates that they have three weeks either to accommodate him or suffer the dire consequences. Were this miserly offer not insulting enough for the settlers, Bogue draws first blood and shoots some of them in cold blood. Bogue’s Native American sidekick derives special relish from burying his hatchet in the back of a fleeing woman. Bogue blasts one dissenter, Matthew Cullen (Matt Bomer of “The Nice Guys”), at point blank range without a qualm. After grieving over her husband, Emma Cullen (Jennifer Lawrence lookalike Hayley Bennett of “Hardcore Henry”) approaches bounty hunter Sam Chisolm and implores him to help her fellow townspeople thwart Bogue’s ambitions. “Sir,” she addresses Sam. “I have a proposition. We're decent people being driven from our homes. Slaughtered in cold blood.” Decked out head to toe in black on a black horse, Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington of “Unstoppable”) queries Emma: “So you seek revenge?” The widow replies,” I seek righteousness. But I'll take revenge.”
Sam recruits a nimble cardsharp, Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt of “Guardians of the Galaxy”), who cannot seem to avoid trouble or its consequences. Clearly, Pratt’s character is forged in the mold of Steve McQueen’s character. These two spout a similar story about a hombre who jumped off a hotel roof. As the gent plunged past each window, spectators heard him say: “So far, so good.” Fuqua gets more mileage out of this story than the John Sturges film imagined. Fuqua appropriates one of original villain’s best lines for Bogue, who philosophically ponders the fate of the townspeople. “If God had not wanted them sheared, he would have not made them sheep.” This seven amounts to a rugged multicultural outfit: an Asian gunslinger Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee of “Terminator Genisys”) wields knife with deadly grace; a lethal Comanche archer (newcomer Martin Sensmeier) never misses; a flinty Hispanic pistolero Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo of “Term Life”) displays enviable marksmanship skills, a Grizzly Adams mountain man Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio of “Full Metal Jacket”) likes to work in close with a hatchet, and a former Confederate sniper Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke of “The Purge”) struggles to conceal the nerve that he has lost. Robicheaux combines the characters of Lee and Harry Luck from the original film, while Billy Rocks is the James Coburn character.
Some abhor remakes more than sequels. I saw “The Magnificent Seven” during its initial theatrical release in 1960, and I’ve seen it so many times since I can recite its many quotable lines, savor the slap and draw six-gun scene, and hum the evocative Elmer Bernstein title theme. Happily, as the end credits roll, Fuqua cues Bernstein’s two-time Oscar nominated orchestral score. Leathery tough “Magnificent Seven” fanatics will applaud this homage. Hollywood had been pondering a remake of the Sturges’ western for almost decade. Initially, the thought of such a remake filled me with dread. Anybody who suffered through the abysmal remake of “Ben-Hur” (2016) knows the kind of blasphemy that can occur when a remake goes sideways. The Charlton Heston version of “Ben-Hur” has withstood the ravages of time and nothing Hollywood can conjure up will surpass it. Fortunately, while it doesn’t contain as much clever, incisive dialogue as its predecessor, “The Magnificent Seven” remake isn’t the disaster I feared. Indeed, Fuqua’s ensemble shootout ranks as one of the best westerns since the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit.” Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke stand out in a gifted cast. Peter Sarsgaard scores as a repulsive villain, but he doesn’t boast the cutthroat humor that the original “Magnificent Seven” villain Calvera (played by Eli Wallach) had. Nonetheless, what Sarsgaard’s villain lacks in dimension, he compensates for with murder. Altogether, despite some idiotic comic relief, the remake of “The Magnificent Seven” is worth saddling up to see.