Sunday, September 25, 2016

'The Magnificent Seven' review

If you look close enough, you might find that Antoine Fuqua's modern update on The Magnificent Seven is indicative of a greater trend in Hollywood of remakes of remakes (it's a remake of the 1960 film which itself is a remake of Seven Samurai). After all, that whole Ben-Hur thing did come out a month ago, and I'm sure that they've already got a few others in the pipeline. But to me, Fuqua's film is not part of a new trend or a revolutionary Tinseltown gimmick- it's actually an old-fashioned movie in every sense of the word. It's a classically told western, which we haven't seen much of recently, and most importantly, it's a star vehicle that was marketed entirely on the charms of Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt. In a studio system dominated by big franchises, it's always refreshing when a movie bucks that trend. Even though The Magnificent Seven is a remake with some name recognition, I guarantee you that most moviegoers didn't buy a ticket because of their fond memories of Seven Samurai or John Sturges' remake. They bought a ticket to see Denzel and Pratt being movie stars. That was the appeal.

The trailers for The Magnificent Seven made simple promises to audiences- Denzel's killing people, Pratt's cracking jokes, it's based on a famous story, and there'll be gunfights aplenty. And it delivers on every one of those guarantees. This is just a really fun movie, a breezily violent throwback to a bygone genre that works as an effective, straightforward time at the movies. Those looking for a fresh take on the story won't find much to love (although there are some racial undertones that are quite interesting), but as a modern western and a pulpy piece of entertainment, it hits the bullseye. On top of that, it's Fuqua's best film in a long time, far surpassing The Equalizer and Southpaw, and another great showcase for the spectacular talents of Washington, Pratt, Ethan Hawke, and more. For anybody looking to spend a couple of hours watching gun battles and witty banter between charismatic actors, you can't go wrong with The Magnificent Seven. It's far from nuanced, but you'll have a blast.

The story here is very familiar territory, and there aren't any big twists on Fuqua's part. As the movie opens, we're introduced to the town of Rose Creek, where the people are being held captive by an evil robber-baron named Bartholomew Bogue (played with delicious energy by Peter Sarsgaard). When all hell breaks loose one day, Bogue kills Matthew Cullen (Matt Bomer) and several other men and women in the town, giving them a cheap offer for their land and leaving without a trace. Left in Bogue's wake is Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), the wife of Matthew and a woman fiercely determined to ensure that justice occurs in her town. Along with a kind-hearted friend (Luke Grimes), Emma embarks on a journey to find men capable of protecting their town from the iron fist of Bogue and his army.

During her travels, Emma discovers Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), a bounty hunter based out of Wichita, Kansas. He's a quick and effective killer, and he's pretty talented with a gun. When he hears that Bogue is terrorizing the town of Rose Creek, he agrees to help. He recruits the hard-drinking, charismatic Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt) to fight in return for a horse, and with that, they head off to find others willing to join their team. Along they way, they'll gain five more members- Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Jack Horne (Vincent D'Onofrio), and Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier)- who all have special skills of their own. After reclaiming the town from a few of Bogue's men, the seven men will have a different problem on their hands- teaching a group of inexperienced townspeople how to fight for their freedom. With limited time, they'll have to use their smarts and their unique abilities to defeat one of the most fearsome armies in the west.

Antoine Fuqua has always been a spotty director in my view, and as much as I love Training Day, he has been on a recent skid with the aforementioned Equalizer and Southpaw. Those movies both fit right into Fuqua's wheelhouse, which is why I'm glad that he did something a bit different with his new film. Granted, Magnificent Seven is still a star-driven shoot-em-up (Fuqua's speciality), but by working in the confines of a genre that has been all but forgotten by Hollywood, Fuqua shakes up the mood a little bit and delivers something that feels fun and energetic. The action sequences are filmed with a goofy audacity, giving audiences everything that they could possibly want from a western with modern pyrotechnics. Fuqua doesn't resist the trappings of the genre, nor does he try to reinvent the wheel- instead, he embraces the dusty fun of a good ole' fashioned cowboy movie.

It also doesn't hurt when you have two of the most charismatic, famous movie stars on the planet. The Magnificent Seven would pretty much be nothing if it weren't for the presence of Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt, two of the only actors left in Hollywood that can carry a movie on their own (even Pratt is still relatively untested). Washington is perfectly cast as Chisolm, the stoic warrior with a whole lot of internalized conflict. Washington is one of the best actors alive, and his ability to turn every action hero into a formidable badass never ceases to impress me. The script by Richard Went and Nicholas Pizzolatto never explores Chisolm's past as fully as they could, but they do touch on enough emotional and racial territory to make his character fascinating. And to be quite honest- what more can I say about Pratt? He's playing essentially the same character that he played in Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World, a roguish, unusually charming drunk with a heart of gold. But even if he's in familiar territory, I guarantee you that nobody will be complaining.

Washington and Pratt carry the movie, but there are plenty of moments for the supporting cast to shine. I wish that they all had a bit more development and definition, and yet, they're fun enough to watch in their own way. Ethan Hawke's Goodnight Robicheaux is probably the only two-dimensional character out of the whole bunch, a former Confederate sharpshooter struggling over his own sense of fear and guilt. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo is great as the smooth-talking Vasquez, while Vincent D'Onofrio looks like he's having fun hamming it up as the bearlike Horne. Byung-hun Lee and Martin Sensmeier's characters are defined mostly by their superior war skills, but they certainly have some impressive moments. Haley Bennett is poised to have quite the breakout year with her roles in this, The Girl on the Train, and Rules Don't Apply, and I really enjoyed her work as Emma Cullen. And finally, Peter Sarsgaard is clearly having a blast as the gleefully evil Bogue. He's a despicable character and he embraces it. They're a fun crew of characters, and even if they're not all that compelling, you'll have fun in their company.

There are plenty of things in The Magnificent Seven that I wish Fuqua and the screenwriters had done better. The racial undertones are pronounced at various times throughout the story, such as a notable scene during Chisolm's introduction where he rides into town on a horse as citizens look on in anger (it's reminiscent of Django Unchained). And yet, Fuqua never explores this to the fullest, opting for an occasional reference in between the gun battles. This also comes up in Faraday's relationship with Vasquez, but all of it remains rather subtle, which is both a positive and a negative. The characters aren't all that complex either and even though they're always charismatic, they can be a bit one-note. Oh, and there's a tacked-on ending that will make even the most forgiving of audiences howl with laughter. But all of these flaws are pushed away because of one simple fact- this movie is fun. It's brash and loud and gleefully violent, the kind of old-school movie that I wish the studios made more often. The issues are obvious, but you probably won't mind.

The 2016 version of The Magnificent Seven will likely always be known as an inferior remake to two classic films, but as a piece of entertainment, this bullet-filled update has its merits. If the film manages to be a box office hit (it did good business this weekend), we could see a resurgence in the western genre which would make me very, very happy. Neo-westerns have been flourishing for years with great films like Hell or High Water, No Country for Old Men, Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight drawing praise from critics and audiences alike. But we have yet to see the western return as a mega-blockbuster, a genre that can get people to theaters in droves. The Magnificent Seven is the first modern example of a superhero western, a ludicrous spectacle of epic proportions led by two great movie stars. It might not start a trend, but it's worth a shot, right?

THE FINAL GRADE:  B                                              (7.4/10)

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures

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