Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Magnificent Seven (2016): A Review (Review #849)


2016 will be known as The Year of the Remake.  There have been remakes of Ben-Hur, The Jungle Book, Ghostbusters, and now The Magnificent Seven.  With the exception of The Jungle Book, all the 2016 remakes have not only been pretty much disasters (financial and/or critical) but failed to justify their existence.  They don't add anything original and certainly don't dislodge their more well-known doppelganger.

So now, what about The Magnificent Seven?

If we're going to be technical, this version is the third version of this story, given that the 1960 The Magnificent Seven is itself a remake of perhaps the greatest film ever made, Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.  With this latest incarnation, we have a movie that isn't a disaster on a Ben-Hur 2016 level, but that is not near to toppling, let alone equaling, the greatness of the 1960 version of The Magnificent Seven.

Evil robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), owner of a massive mining operation, has stormed into the peaceful village of Rose Creek and ordered the townsfolk to sell their land at a lower price or face his wrath, his wrath being to essentially wipe the town and its residents off the face of the earth.  He and his men burn the church down and have no problem killing anyone who opposes them.  In desperation, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), widow of one of those killed, along with her friend Teddy Q (Luke Grimes) go to find someone who will stand up to Bogue and his terrorists.

She finds Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), a deputized bounty hunter, whom we find out much, much later has a secret past with Bogue.  Chisolm is intrigued by the idea of taking Bogue on, and the search begins to find others willing to stand up to the evil billionaire.  First to be recruited is Faraday (Chris Pratt), a wisecracking gunslinger and drunk who lives off cards and his quips.  In order to get his horse back, Faraday agrees to join this team.  Soon Chisolm and Faraday start getting other men: Faraday is sent to find Chisolm's old Civil War friend Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), who in turn brings his "mysterious man of the Orient" (Robicheaux's own words), Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee).  Chisolm finds the bandit Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), whom he's been tracking down but who in exchange for helping Chisolm will allow Vasquez to leave.  Once they join up they find wild mountain man Jack Horne (Vincent D'Onfrio), and last but not least, as a group they encounter the mysterious and silent Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier).

We need only a Jewish and Arab member 
to complete the set.

Together, these seven ride into Rose Creek, where the townsfolk fear both the seven or Bogue's Army.  In short order the seven warriors show the small group of Bogue's men there that they mean business.  Bogue, hearing about this in far-off Sacramento, is enraged and decides to bring his wrath down on the people.  The Seven, meanwhile, begin to train the men to defend themselves, even if the farmers and homesteaders are pretty much inept at things.  Robicheaux is struggling with his memories of the Civil War, which makes him pretty useless as a gunfighter.  Not so the others like Red Menace, who is like Hawkeye in The Avengers, shooting his arrow with laser-like precision and never missing. 

Eventually, on eve of battle Robicheaux decides to ride out of town, while the others (like Red Dawn), decide to have one last battle with Bogue.  Come dawn, Bogue sends his men to crush all opposition, and the Magnificent Seven & A Half (Emma not afraid to take up arms, and Robicheaux returning to face his demons), along with the town, make one last fierce battle.

Vengeance is visited on by Chisolm, whose past with Bogue is finally uncovered, and at the end, only three of the Magnificent Seven live out to ride away: The Star, The Mexican, and Red Lantern.

If there's a certain mocking tone that I've adopted towards The Magnificent Seven, it's only because at a certain point, I kept wondering who were these guys and what were they doing there.  One of the problems The Magnificent Seven has is that despite being a team, they never appeared to be a unit, a whole.  As the script by Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto has it, the seven themselves didn't have much a reason to join up.  In the beginning both Chisolm and Faraday (aka the Big Stars) had the mention of the money, but after that I can't remember that this was much mentioned.

It was nice to have a multicultural force come together, but there wasn't much interaction between say Vasquez and Red Channels.  With regards to Red Robin, he just appeared and joined...because he had nothing else to do? because he was 'on a different path'?  Why was he there (apart from being the Hawkeye in this Avengers: Wild West and to fight against another random Native American who was part of Bogue's Army in a very clichéd and expected way)?

There was nothing in The Magnificent Seven to see this group was really united as one, let alone what united them.  For long periods of time Vasquez disappeared from the screen, and I speculated he was too busy making margaritas to take much part in the proceedings.

My friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. made a very interesting observation when it came to the film's end.  He noted with great displeasure that the film HAD to give Chisolm some history with Bogue that led him to take him on.  WHY, Gomez despaired, do we HAVE to have the hero have some history with the villain?  Why couldn't Chisolm just agree to take Bogue on just because he feels it's the right thing to do?

I am not fond of comparing films, but in both Seven Samurai and the original The Magnificent Seven we didn't have to have this backstory of the heroic leader and villain having to be connected in some way.  Nowadays this seems to be de rigueur, but we think it's lazy scriptwriting.   It isn't necessary, and worse, takes away some of the potential greatness of the idea that this group of random men do something because its the right thing to do, not for some secret ulterior motive.

Anyway, back to Red Hood.  What was his purpose, his reason for joining, his reason for being in the film (apart from that sense that it needed to have a more inclusive group)?  Same goes for Vasquez: apart from swearing a lot in Spanish and taking a jab at Robicheaux's claims about his Alamo-fighting grandpa, what can the viewer tell us about his personality, his decision to stick it out rather than say, betray Chisolm in order to save himself?

It seems like such a waste to put in so much energy to a bad "revenge against villain by hero" story and "let Chris Pratt be Chris Pratt" business if it means taking the other members essentially for granted.

Again and again The Magnificent Seven seems to go a certain way only to pull back.  The film comes achingly close to suggesting some kind of romance between Faraday and Cullen, only to just drop it.  One wonders why it was introduced in the first place.

At least to its credit Cullen came across as a much stronger woman than most Westerns have, down to not being afraid to use a weapon herself,  hence my suggestion of The Magnificent Seven and a Half (she being the half). 

Certainly, the script is weak, but what about the performances.  Denzel is Denzel, which is a good thing.  He was surprisingly steely as Chisolm, never ruffled, always calm, a commanding presence where he dominated the screen.  He was born for Westerns.  Pratt was Pratt: he was Star-Lord in a Cowboy Hat.  I don't doubt Chris Pratt is a great action star, a bit of a charming rake.  I just question whether he's an actual actor.  I picture him playing the Montgomery Clift role in The Heiress or Judgment at Nuremberg or From Here to Eternity and think...he couldn't pull it off.  In short, I'm trying to find a dramatic role for Chris Pratt that wouldn't require him to rely on his looks, his charm, or his bro persona (all of which are evident to good effect in The Magnificent Seven) and coming up empty.

In fact, his Faraday comes across as slightly creepy and horrible.  He has no problem shooting off a man's ear, suggesting an almost sadistic streak in one who is suppose to be our hero.

Sadly, with the exception of Hawke (with Washington the only actor to be given a character with something of a backstory), who did a pretty good job as well, none of the other Seven had much of a personality or anything that made them anything worth caring about...even Red Mist.  D'Onofrio was downright comical as the mountain man Horne, down to a silly high voice that made him look and sound like an unhinged Santa Claus.   His death, rather than elicited tears, elicited outright laughter.  He was very actory, and that ended up looking indulgent instead of sincere.

Sargaard was having a wild time yucking it up as the villain, delighting in playing evil in a patently over-the-top way.  His mustache needed to be longer for him to twirl, but apart from that it was so clear that nuance was not the order of the day when it came to how any of the characters were played.

I'm not the type to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so let me note some things that did work.  Director Antoine Fuqua knows the motifs of the Western, starting with how Washington's Chisolm appears: slowly, the mysterious stranger appearing almost as if a mirage (though that seems to draw more from Lawrence of Arabia than say, The Searchers).  Visually, The Magnificent Seven has a strong style: the final battle quite epic and brutal.

Sadly though, a lot of times The Magnificent Seven came across as almost comical.  When the villagers were told to come out after the first skirmish, the first thing that popped into my head was "Come out, come out, wherever you are..." from The Wizard of Oz.   Seeing Washington and Lee walk down the street made me wonder whether it could be the start of a joke.  When it is dawn at the final battle, we see each Avenger...I mean, Seven doing something while a dramatic bell rang out, almost funny. 

The Magnificent Seven is not a horrible film.  It's an OK Western, with some nice moments done in by a weak script.  I kept wondering whether this version would stay with the original and if so, which of the three of the seven would survive.  I figured Washington and Pratt (being the two big stars) would, but which of the uninteresting others would.  To my surprise, it is Washington, the Mexican, and Red River who make it out at the end.  Don't know why anyone would care whether the last two make it out alive. 

They didn't even have the decency to point out that at the end, it's the farmers who won, not the Magnificent Seven.  They DID include the iconic theme from the original Magnificent Seven, which I think was a wildly poor decision to remind us that this version won't come close to the one they cribbed off of.

Still, while this version of The Magnificent Seven is not a particularly great film, the fact that it is entertaining makes it just good enough.  It gets extra points for the fact that the Mexican kills whoever Cam Gigandet was playing, and any film that metaphorically kills off one of the worst actors currently working in film is bound to get a positive from me.        


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