The Magnificent Seven (Antoine Fuqua, 2016) 2½ out of 4 stars
Acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa released his nearly three-and-a-half-hour epic Seven Samurai in 1954. Six years later, American director John Sturges helmed a Hollywood adaptation – at only two hours and eight minutes, much shorter – entitled The Magnificent Seven. Both movies tell the same story, of a small farming village, attacked and bullied by local bandits, that hires seven mercenaries to protect the community and defeat the oppressors once and for all. The fact that Kurosawa’s film was turned into an American Western was especially interesting given the obvious influence of those Westerns on its own structure. What goes around comes around, in the world of reciprocal cultural influence. As appealing as the Sturges version may be, the original is the true masterpiece. One thing I do not recommend doing is watching the two films back to back, as I once did, since the immediate juxtaposition is not kind to the Western, which is otherwise a more than serviceable piece of commercial entertainment.
And now, 56 years later, comes a new version of that “original” adaptation, from Antoine Fuqua (Training Day). It’s the same basic premise, though many details have been changed, adding greater racial and ethnic diversity to the troupe of heroes and making a woman the most proactive of the townspeople. Like its predecessor, it is more or less narratively pleasing, though it suffers from significant plot and character weaknesses – and a distressingly high body count – that take away from the joy of watching its principal cast at work. Led by Denzel Washington (2 Guns), as sometime lawman Sam Chisolm, that cast includes white guys Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy), Ethan Hawke (Before Midnight) and Vincent D’Onofrio (Daredevil), but also actors Byung-hun Lee (I Saw the Devil), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (Cake) and relative newcomer (and Native-American actor) Martin Sensmeier (Lilin’s Brood), making the overall balance of the titular group more diverse than in 1960. Since the story takes place in 1879, however, and the American Civil War is a not-so-distant-memory – and is, in fact, mentioned a number of times in the film – the anachronism of the progressive racial politics of the (very white) town may raise a few historical eyebrows. Then again, when your very existence is threatened by a psychotic robber baron, you may not care who is protecting you, as long as they get the job done.
That villain is played by the usually reliable Peter Sarsgaard (Blue Jasmine), who here turns in a ludicrous one-note performance that is one of the major problems with the movie. He is simply not a worthy adversary for Mr. Washington, who commands the screen with nuance and presence. Fortunately, Haley Bennett (Hardcore Henry), as a townswoman widowed in the opening who makes it her mission to take down Sarsgaard’s Bartholomew Bogue (now there’s a name that demands some moustache twirling, for sure, yet Sarsgaard can’t even muster that), more than holds her own opposite Washington. She’s got spirit, and can handle a gun, which is more than you can say for the men in the town. That makes it even more perplexing when, at the end, the film literally removes the rifle from her hand, placing in the hands of a man, instead. What a strange final message, given her prominence in everything that has happened until then.
So the film has problems. It is nevertheless decent fun for much of its two-hour-and-twelve-minute running time, mostly because Pratt, Hawke, D’Onofrio, Lee, Garcia-Rulfo and Sensmeier back up Washington and Bennett with fine performances of their own. Theirs is a rowdy, but competent, bunch. Though the script drags in its middle half, it opens and ends well, despite the bloody mess of a confrontation at the end. That finale, on the whole, brings things to a satisfying conclusion, until Bennett is made to explain the meaning of the movie to us in one of the worst examples of unnecessary expository voiceover. Let’s call it “The Adequate Seven,” then, since it gets the job done, yet is ultimately far short of magnificent.