The recent crop of Westerns have some spin to make them unique, or modern. Bone Tomahawk takes familiar heroes and drops them into a survivalist, cannibal horror scenario. Hell or High Water may be set in the present, but with its sharply-defined lawmen and rugged individualists, it has the heart of a Western. The Magnificent Seven, Antoine Fuqua’s remake of the 1960 Western – which is a remake of Seven Samurai – is relatively classic, even regressive, in its genre aspirations. The characters and conflict are deliberately simple, all in service of aggressive, borderline disturbing violence. Fuqua and his screenwriters find the occasional interesting note, although ever-growing pile of bodies wane the film’s modest pleasures.
A sinister preface defines the villain before we see any of the titular seven. Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) buys throws his weight in a small town because of the townsfolk are near a profitable mine. In the town church, everyone argues what to do about Bogue, at least until he waltzes inside and kills in cold blood. Emma Culllen (Haley Bennett) is the wife of Bogue’s victim, so she heads nearby in search of a righteous posse. She finds Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), who is noteworthy because he is decent, dresses in black, and prefers a single pistol. After Chisolm recruits the wisecracking Josh Farraday (Chris Pratt) and the sullen sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), the remaining posse is surprisingly diverse: there’s a Mexican, a fat old guy, a Native American, and an Asian guy who’s more ninja than man. They all descend on the town, muscling out the hired guns there, and Bogue gets the message. He comes back with hundreds of shooters, as well as some deadly artillery.
The Magnificent Seven delivers on a simple level, and that’s the natural charisma of its actors. More than anyone working today, Washington brings credibility to absurd action sequences, and the only surprise about his workmanlike performance is that he’s never done a Western before. Pratt brings his comic instincts to his role, and they serve him well since they disguise Farraday’s deadly skills as a gunfighter. But as the fat old guy, Vincent D’Onofrio is film’s real MVP. He speaks with a bizarre voice, as if he’s hoarse from a lifetime of anger, and his dialogue veers between senility and wisdom (if the role was cast in 1960, he would be played by Walter Brennan). None of the actors develop a sense of chemistry; the screenplay by Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk repeatedly jokes about how the posse is mismatched. That may be true, yet it does not excuse the lack of any collective purpose.
If a simple identity defines all the heroes and villains, then their approach to violence is the film’s idea of character development. There many long shootouts in The Magnificent Seven, and the body count reflects that. After flashes of gun play or stabbings, Fuqua returns to the same establishing shots, keeping a visual tally of all the corpses. None of the violence is especially graphic – this film aims for a PG13 rating (pun intended) – although the sheer quantity of death and destruction is more than what we typically see in a Western, or an action film more generally. There is a sub-plot where Robicheaux cannot stomach the death – he is shell-shocked from the Civil War – and the screenplay agrees that he is a coward unless he kills for a good cause. Fuqua is a fine action director, with an attention to incident as well as where all the posse has dug their trenches. Still, the relative indifference to suffering leaves a queasy feeling; Fuqua force-feeds the mayhem well beyond what most sane folk would tolerate.
There are all the hallmarks of the classic Western in The Magnificent Seven. There are scenes in whorehouses, saloons, churches, and campfires. We are treated to countless wide shots of shadowy cowboys cutting across an austere, beautiful southwestern landscape. Fuqua may get the look right, but he falters in broader themes. The Magnificent Seven has all the transgressive violence of The Wild Bunch, a far superior film, minus all the depth. Fuqua waits until the credits to rehash the ubiquitous theme to the original film. The laudatory melody helps epitomizes how some Westerns tried to make modern myths. In the 2016 remake, however, the theme functions like an ironic rebuke of what preceded it. Fuqua, his screenwriters, and his cast probably cannot tell the difference, and that’s the problem in a nutshell.