When people lament a dearth of creativity in Hollywood, the remake is often the object of their ire. So, it might well seem that “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua’s “The Magnificent Seven” was doomed to be a fool’s errand. It’s not only a remake of the John Sturges’ classic, but also the remake of a remake, as that 1960 Western wonder was based on Akira Kurosawa’s iconic “Seven Samurai.” But much in the way Sturges used the core story to tell a tale more relevant to his audience, Fuqua and screenwriters Richard Wenk (“The Equalizer”) and Nic Pizzolatto (“True Detective”) have made “The Magnificent Seven” their own, offering an old-school Western with a modern edge and efficiency.
Our story begins in 1879 in the newly minted town of Rose Creek, where humble farmers are being chased off their land by the brutal robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, gaunt and deliciously deplorable). Backed by wealth and immoral mercenaries, he sets the church aflame then shoots down any locals who oppose him, leaving their bodies to rot in the street by order of his pocketed sheriff. Refusing to give up her home without a fight, the newly widowed Emma Cullen (Haley Bennet, who firmly holds her own against much bigger names) sets out to find hired guns who will save Rose Creek. Called to confront a man as malevolent as Bogue, there are many who would rather flee. But seven misfits come together, seeking redemption in the shadow of that smoldering church steeple.
Denzel Washington stars as Sam Chisolm, a warrant officer with a lighting-fast draw and a temperament cooler than a sweating glass of iced tea. Haunted by his past, Chisolm chases down bad men to do some good. He finds the card trick-loving drunk Joshua Faraday (Chris Pratt), the Creole sharpshooter with the gift of gab Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), the haggard hayseed with the brute strength of a bear Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), the Mexican outlaw known only as Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a lone Comanche archer named Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), and Billy Rocks, (Byung-hun Lee), a blade-slinging assassin of few words but great insight.
With so many characters, Fuqua can’t spare much screen time to their development. But those who have long loved Westerns will recognize their archetypes well enough to latch on to these rogues early and easy, and the incredible star power of this superb ensemble will do the rest. Each of this “Magnificent Seven” is masterfully cast. Garcia-Rulfo brims with an off-kilter enthusiasm, while Sensmeier brings an eerie intensity, whether he’s slaying Bogue’s minions or mocking the blandness of “white people food.” D’Onofrio, who thrilled fans as the glowering gangster Wilson Fisk on Netflix’s “Daredevil,” sheds all sophistication to play a befuddled badass whose voice is a strange titter of hoarseness and grunts. At first, it seems an odd choice, but ultimately, this strained tone allows the lauded character actor to sink unrecognizably into the role of the Seven’s most curious contradiction: a teddy bear with more kills to his record than his lethal compatriots.
Perfectly paired are Hawke and Lee as unlikely best friends Robicheaux and Rocks. Hawke, who has always been glorious playing arrogant assholes, clearly revels in the poetry that rolls from his posh Confederate vet’s smirking lips. By contrast, Lee has few lines yet speaks volumes with his physicality, walking with focus, fighting with ferocity so effortless that he’s even a threat unarmed. Together, they’re electric, alive with familiarity to the point of tatters. In that way, every close-up of Rocks’ reaction works to also inform Robicheaux’s character, and vice versa. Yet the greatest on-screen duo here is Pratt and Washington.
Playing the comic relief and wise-cracking braggart, Pratt makes Faraday a kind of 19th-century Star-Lord. This charm bomb/goofball makes a fantastic foil to Washington’s more stoic antihero. Having directed Washington twice before, in “Training Day” and “The Equalizer,” Fuqua knows how best to employ this mesmerizing leading man, as a velvet hammer. Dressed in black from hat to boot, Washington cuts a sharp figure, striding with a cool confidence and easy machismo that makes me lament he hadn’t been cast in a Western sooner. Flashing that signature smile like a warning, it’s clear he was made for this genre.
How was it Washington has never been a Western before? Oh, right. Because Westerns are dominated by white dudes. Bucking tradition, Fuqua built his Magnificent Seven with an inclusive cast. It’s not PC pandering (as some have snarked), but a smart method to get new angles on this band of misfits while allowing for a wide enough casting net to snare an absolutely spectacular ensemble.
Much like “Suicide Squad,” “The Magnificent Seven” is a ensemble piece about misfits that races through Act One to skip to a prolonged Act Three, meaning a series of mounting action sequences. And as with that polarizing summer pic, I’m not mad at it, because it’s tons of ferocious fun. You’ll share in the actors’ enthusiasm as they get to sneer out lines like, “If God didn’t want ’em sheared, he wouldn’t have made them sheep,” and “I seek righteousness … but I’ll take revenge.” With a cast this mesmerizing and a story this simple, Fuqua has carefully carved out the screen time to relish in Western tropes, like awe-striking cinematography that longingly gazes at sprawling plains, architectural framing that reveals threatening gunmen with a chest-tightening suspense, and shocking shootouts that will knock you out of your boots.
Rejecting the trend of modern Westerns that are packed with Tarantino-style gore, Fuqua’s fights are more grounded in reality. The slings, arrows and bullets that pierce our heroes are made terrible by performance and sound design, not garish sprays of blood.
All of this makes for a remake that justifies the odd genre’s very existence. With “The Magnificent Seven,” Fuqua gives us a classic Western tale of redemption and revenge, packed with awesome action sequences, delectable dialogue, and enough star power to have merited a showy summer release. Simply, put this remake is pretty damn magnificent in its own right.
“The Magnificent Seven” opens today.
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