As a fan of both Seven Samurai and its 1960 American remake, The Magnificent Seven, I was eager to see the third telling of the tale. Akira Kurosawa was a hard act to follow, but John Sturges did OK. Could director Antoine Fuqua hit the marks those two set? I regret to inform you that he did not, as while there are occasional bright spots, this year's model feels hollow and a bit cold.
Since Fuqua's The Equalizer, which also starred M7 frontman Denzel Washington, I've been dreaming of a Denzel western — though that film is based, improbably enough, on the 80s-era TV series, it played more like an urban-set Western to me, right down to Washington's John Wayneish characterization of the title character. And Washington doesn't disappoint here, as Chisolm the cool guy bounty hunter (seriously, is there an actor in Hollywood that's cooler that Denzel? No, there is not) occupying the opposite side of the coin from Sam Jackson's character in The Hateful Eight. He's got the moves, for sure, from the cockeyed gaze at the camera to a balletic grace in the action scenes that belies his 61 years.
But a movie needs more than Washington posing, Searchers-like, in a variety of doorways, and that's where the rest of the ensemble comes in: An unpleasantly smug Chris Pratt as lover and fighter Josh Faraday; a bizarrely squeaky-voiced Vincent D'Onofrio as a former pro scalper; Korean heartthrob Byung-hun Lee as a knifeman; and Martin Sensmeier and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as, respectively, the Native American and the Mexican members of the Seven. They're all fine.
The real standout is Ethan Hawke, playing former Confederate sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux, a man so wracked with PTSD that he initially runs from the fight. It's a standard character, I know — and it's a little weird, isn't it, when we're applauding a character arc in which someone starts out as too damaged/scared to fight, then gets over it and "yay he's killing people!" But, you guys, this might be the best performance Hawke has ever turned in (Fuqua, of course, also got great results from Hawke in Training Day, but that was the role of a boy, this one is of a man). It's a little bit battered homeless vet, it's a little bit your crazy friend from college, and a great mix of charm and steely resolve.
It's too bad that all these guys weren't in a better movie. But this version lacked spark and wit, and felt less like a dance toward the inevitable big confrontation than a trudge. You know the drill: An innocent (in this case, an oft inappropriately dressed Haley Bennett) begs the righteous man (Chisolm) for help to save her beleaguered town from the baddies. Chisolm assembles his team, they ride into town, confrontation ensues, credits roll.
In this version, the team assembly part (usually the lightest, funniest part of the construct) felt rushed and uneven, and other than a fantastically kinetic showdown when the guys first arrived in town (the shootout intended to signal that the final one will be REALLY good), things are pretty dull through the standard "train the inept townspeople" section through to the big ending.
It's just now that I realized that I had failed to mention the bad guy, which says something about how forgettable he is. A mining magnate played by Peter Sarsgaard (who seemed to be channeling how Kevin Spacey would have played that "I drink your milkshake" scene), despite a solid intro scene, he's next to irrelevant, and seems more laughable than imposing.
And then there's the big, final battle, which is pretty bloodless, all things considered. (Maybe that's because the film is PG-13?) Though the bodies mount, they do so drily. And, as opposed to the 1960 version, they mount without glee — say what you will about the correctness of this in These Violent Times, but that final shootout in the OGM7 was fun as fuck. This one steers away from reveling in violence, but it doesn't steer toward its ugliness (this is not the Omaha Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan, by any means). Instead, it chose a milquetoast middle ground, where people get shot and things blow up and it's just sort of there.
In fact, the movie occupies the middle ground throughout, which is really too bad. When confronted with period details troubling to the modern eye or ear — for example, casual racism or misogyny — the film doesn't seem quite sure what to do with them. Lean in and embrace the talk of the times? Make the racists pay? Avoid the issue completely? This film doesn't make a real decision on stuff like that, letting Washington's black character exist free from slurs (barring an 11th hour reveal), but allowing Pratt's character to do some bizarre riff on Mexican accents or something. It was inconsistent, weird, and a little jarring to never firmly know how retrospectively evolved this world might be.
I didn't think that The Magnificent Seven was a bad movie, per se, just a movie that wasn't very brave, and took the safe road where it should have taken the scarier, more dangerous pass. It's acceptable, a little dull in spots, and has some entertaining moments. But in no way, no how, is it even close to magnificent.