‘Magnificent 7’ reboot misfires despite strengths

Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures

In a year where cinema and television alike have been dominated by remakes of everything from “Ben-Hur” to “Ghostbusters,” Director Antoine Fuqua’s “The Magnificent Seven” serves as an excellent example of both the strengths and weaknesses of the recent trend in blockbuster filmmaking. A remake of Director Akira Kurosawa’s landmark 1954 drama “Seven Samurai,” “The Magnificent Seven” goes by way of Director John Sturges’ slightly less substantial 1960 Western reinterpretation.

Fuqua is joined once again by his “Training Day” and “The Equalizer” leading man, Denzel Washington, who heads up an eccentric cast that includes his “Training Day” co-star Ethan Hawke, Chris Pratt (“Guardians of the Galaxy”), Peter Sarsgaard (“Jarhead”), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (“Cake”), Byung-hun Lee (“G.I. Joe”) and Martin Sensmeier (“Lilin’s Brood”) in the timeless story of Sam Chisolm (Washington) and his six gunmen who are hired to liberate Emma Cullen’s hometown of Rose Creek from a wealthy villainous industrialist.

Kurosawa’s original historical epic is a thrilling film that captures the audience’s attention for three hours and sustains its forward momentum even through an intermission. A demonstration of technical and narrative virtuosity, “Seven Samurai” proved to be a creative watershed for Japanese film as well as a lasting influence on cinema at large. In the face of such a vaunted source material, Fuqua’s film is cushioned by a degree of separation: Sturges’ film, remembered mostly for Elmer Bernstein’s score and the eventual success of the then-unknown cast, including Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Robert Vaughn, transplanted “Seven Samurai” into a Western setting. While both films fail to reach the original’s groundbreaking heights, each film displays certain strengths relative to one another; several of the greatest strengths of the new film are easy to see when it is compared to Sturges’ version.

Before “The Magnificent Seven” was released, it received significant attention for the diversity of its cast. In comparison to the outdated depictions of the Mexican villagers who relied on Yul Brynner and his band of compatriots to rescue them in Sturges’ original, Fuqua’s new film features a much more diverse “Magnificent Seven,” albeit one that is still entirely male. Rising starlet Haley Bennett, who has two other big-budget films coming out this fall, is delegated to a supporting role as tough-as-nails widow Emma Cullen, who seeks out the heroes to save her besieged town.

The film also sidesteps Hollywood’s casting problem by hiring minority actors to play minority parts; for example, the Comanche warrior Red Harvest is played by Sensmeier, an Alaska Native. As a minority director in a field dominated by white men, Fuqua displays sensitivity toward diversity that deserves commendation.

Fuqua’s film also recaptures much of what made its source material such a pleasure, the humorous machismo-driven camaraderie, deeply-realized atmosphere of the original. Fuqua and cinematographer, Mauro Fiore, fill the film with Western flourishes. Amidst a high-contrast, shadow-ridden, dusty backdrop, Chisolm and his comrades ride, shoot and spin their guns with obvious relish. Pratt and Washington play to their strengths, the former putting his considerable charisma into vivacious gambler Josh Faraday and the latter playing a weighty hero similar to his characters in his other collaborations with Fuqua.

Peter Sarsgaard portrays the villain, Bartholomew Bogue, an industrialist who lays siege to a mining town, creating a purely evil villain that is a pleasure to despise. Hawke and D’Onofrio stand out as a haunted Civil War vet and a slightly deranged tracker amongst an otherwise forgettable supporting cast.

Despite all of these strengths, “The Magnificent Seven” is ultimately no more than an adequate Western; an enjoyable summer blockbuster that fails to live up to its festival pedigree, and its weaknesses are directly tied to its strengths. The plot feels overdone and the characters, while charming, lack depth.

The story feels predictable and the motivations hazy; of course the septet will band together to defend the town. Outside of Chisolm’s desire for revenge, it doesn’t feel obvious why any of the “Magnificent Seven” are fighting at all. The forward motion of the film wavers not merely because of its predictability, but also because Fuqua’s direction lacks clarity and fluidity, particularly in action scenes where the flow of battle quickly becomes obscured in favor of stylish embellishments and small details.

On paper, “The Magnificent Seven” seems like a success and audiences are responding positively to the film’s combination of star power and nostalgia. Even though the film had a successful opening weekend, one must wonder then if the film would have worked even better if it had given its all-star cast a more original concept rather than bogging the film down with the history that comes from its source material.