The new version never quite pulls off the epic look of most westerns, as director Antoine Fuqua has crafted a visual layout that looks like a simple film set. While there is an attempt as some sweeping landscape shots, the desolate, rugged, and isolated quality that imbues most westerns is mostly lost here. This feels like a movie, and everything will be precisely staged for it. The cast reflects such staging. This film has joined the “one of everybody” approach to casting, so often found in today’s commercials (see most children's retail store ads) and large ensemble films (see the Ocean’s films, the recent Star Wars installment, or many others) in which the filmmakers are sure to include a healthy amount of diversity to keep everyone satisfied. The original was a fairly bland collection of cowboys, and though this revision has an air of pandering, it does work effectively here. Packed with stars and recognizable supporting actors, the film does a great job of allowing each character a chance to breathe, interact with the others, and develop a clear sense of personality and purpose.
Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) is a bounty hunter who is asked by town locals (particularly widowed Emma, played by Haley Bennett) to help them ward off an evil miner, Bart Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who intends to take over the land and evict citizens from the town, or kill them if they don’t cooperate. Chisolm rounds up a band of eccentric characters (played by Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Martin Sensmeier, and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) to help him defend the town and get rid of Bogue and his hired crew of corrupt law enforcement officials once and for all. The seven heroes train the citizens to shoot and help build booby-traps to prepare for the battle to come. Chisolm and his men, along with the members of the town, know they may lose their lives in the fight, but they believe protecting one’s home is always worth the cost.
While this premise, defending land, is a staple in the western genre, it is how this new version sets it up that borders on ridiculous in several instances. We are led to believe that the townsfolk don’t know anything about guns and have to be instructed on simply how to hold one. The original was based on protecting a Mexican village of mostly farmers. The updated film wants us to think that Americans living in the west in 1879 don’t know which end a bullet comes out. Even children of the time would’ve been experienced with guns, for hunting primarily and self-defense secondarily, just as young people living on ranches in western states today certainly do. And the reason for the town’s panic has been noticeably revised, seemingly to address today’s political and economic conflicts. The 1960 film’s antagonists were a simple thief and his bandits who stole from the town’s stock of food and materials. Bogue, however, is intended to be much more sinister than a common criminal—he’s a mean businessman, and that’s the worst kind of villain these days. Yes, he is a horrible person who murders innocents and intends to confiscate others’ property, but his silly speech at a town meeting in a church at the beginning of the film, in which he claims he is just a capitalist, and after all, capitalism is part of democracy—it’s just America, you see—actually diminishes his ability to be taken seriously. We end up fearing him because he’s crazy, not because he has a recognizable ethos. This scene turns him into a cartoon rather than a worthy opponent.
The film is further muddied by the fact that it seems to follow the trend in superhero films of destroying everything in sight. As long as the bad guys are gone, it doesn’t matter that dozens on your side are dead and every stick of property you own is demolished. The final shootout is exciting, but chaotic, as the viewer will constantly be wondering where everyone in the scene is actually located. And it plays to one of the worst aspects of western films (aside from Unforgiven) throughout history—good guys kill everyone with one shot, and bad guys miss a lot. And when one of the seven gets hit, he is able to valiantly fight on, but not so much for those pesky, faceless bad guys. True, there is always a sense in westerns that everything will turn out okay, heroes will win, girls will be gotten, villains will be vanquished. But when we can see those conclusions from miles away, the tension of the story is lost, and characters, however likable they may be, just don’t stay with us after they ride into the sunset.
Despite some of these drawbacks, the film is mostly entertaining, and it’s an improvement from the plodding and lackluster original (yes, I know it’s one of the most famous films ever, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t flawed). And the chemistry among the seven is great. Hawke particularly stands out, and his rekindled relationship with Washington since 2001’s Training Day is nicely drawn. Pratt continues to prove that he will be Harrison Ford 2.0—charming, handsome, funny, and an action star that both men and women love watching. And Washington is effective as the leader of the crew. As perhaps the last true movie star, it is nice to see him in a different genre.
If you are looking for a gritty western with complex themes and conflicted characters, The Magnificent Seven certainly is not it. But if you are willing to sit through the barrage of bullets and bodies, and are interested in witty banter and lots of Eastwood-esque squints into the sunlight, then you may have a good time. It is not magnificent, but it’s not terrible either.