The narrative structure of The Magnificent Seven is simplicity itself: A villain terrorising the innocent people of a town must be stopped by a motley group of seven men who use their various skills to thwart him. That’s pretty much it.
To expand on Antoine Fuqua’s adaptation of John Sturges’ 1960s original – the action takes place in the Old West – the townspeople of Rose Creek are being bullied by amoral capitalist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) because he wants to buy their land at a cheap price so that he can exploit it for mining gold.
In the opening scene he burns the church to the ground and cold-bloodedly shoots down the unarmed husband of Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) who then vows to find some capable mercenaries willing to defend her town. She recruits Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), a “duly sworn warrant officer” hunting down outlaws, who is moved by her story, but appears to have his own past with Bogue.
Chisolm starts gathering together his group, including wise-cracking gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), former Confederate sharpshooter and PTSD-sufferer Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his expert, knife-wielding associate Billy Rocks (Byung-Hun Lee) and Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), an outlaw Chisolm takes it upon himself to pardon. The group is completed by a Native American named ‘Red Harvest’ (Martin Sensmeier) whose function is to shoot arrows, hack up villains and look awesome, and an elusive, legendary trapper named Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio).
As there’s not much to the storyline, success or failure comes down to the execution. Even with a 133-minute running time, this film wastes no time on digressions or diversions, it concentrates on bringing together the team, establishing their relationships and showcasing their skills in a test or a conflict.
Eventually the whole crew head off to Rose Creek, where they proceed to shoot down the heavies left by Bogue to safeguard his potential investment, then send the corrupt sheriff off with a challenge for his pay-master. It won’t be long before retribution comes raining down upon them in a hail of bullets. There follow the predictably semi-comedic scenes as the mercenaries attempt to train the inept townsfolk in self-defence and then prepare for the deadly showdown looming on the horizon.
In Fuqua’s film the main roles are filled with a set of actors who are recognisable and popular with a modern audience, and more diverse than we’re used to seeing in the Western genre. Some casual racism is meted out for the sake of token historical authenticity, but is quickly neutralized by putting it in the mouths of oafs, (or Chris Pratt’s character – because we can’t get too mad at lovable old Star Lord, can we?).
Denzel Washington, a stalwart of Fuqua films, here plays the strong silent type, which apart from occasional flashes of emotion and chemistry with his cohorts, tends to give him little opportunity to show charisma or leadership abilities, or do more than phone-in a conventional heroic performance.
Peter Sarsgaard plays Bogue with a steely, snake-eyed malevolence which makes it a shame that we don’t get to see more of him. Scene-stealer Ethan Hawke makes the most of the little he has. His character displays the closest thing to an arc, as his role provides some actual historical context to the proceedings.
Having the most fun is Vincent D’Onofrio, employing a warbling vocal delivery and shambling about like a bemused but benevolent bear. Haley Bennett as the token woman, consistently has her feisty-heroine persona undermined by having to reveal her cleavage on all occasions, however unlikely. She is touted as the brave, grieving and respectable widow, but is usually required to wear little more than the whores in the saloon.
Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven is an entertaining but forgettable watch, although the talent of the cast will provide enough momentum to get us to the climactic shoot-out. The film appears to be an exercise that pays homage to the John Sturges’ version but contains little of its appeal, and nods to Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, but has none of its humanistic depth. It’s fun enough, but it’s not ‘magnificent’. The movie’s selling power lies with its stellar cast, but I felt the creeping sensation that I was not so much engaging with characters in a story, as with talented actors assembled to create a popular product. I’ve had that response too often, when presented with many recent ensemble blockbusters.
I have enjoyed aspects of Fuqua’s retribution/morality actioners such as The Replacement Killers, The Equalizer and Southpaw, and in his Magnificent Seven I found I relished his bold, widescreen compositions that recalled movies in the golden age of Westerns.
This Fuqua film is, as ever, glutted with pyrotechnics, slickly choreographed gun battles and a numbingly multitudinous body count. However, while watching the movie I often found myself drifting off to muse on the unshakeable and unquestioning glorification of the gun, and the lengthy and devoted love-affair that American Cinema has had with it.
The Magnificent Seven is out 23rd September