Recent Magnificent Seven Entertaining but Safe
by Kristin Battestella
Director Antoine Fuqua's (Olympus Has Fallen) 2016 The Magnificent Seven has all the hallmarks of the original 1960 western with a motley 1879 crew of cowboys, gunslingers, outlaws, and gamblers defending the town of Rose Creek against a ruthless industrial baron. Although the shootouts and genre action are entertaining, unfortunately this endeavor lacks inspiration thanks to an uneven narrative that plays it safe.
Dynamite mining, strangleholds on crops, and meager offerings of $20 per station lead to town meetings amid fears of this new businessman and his hired guns terrorizing churches and burning buildings. How can these pioneers defend themselves against such violence and shootouts? Although a wicked scene in itself, the all for show opening of The Magnificent Seven is extreme and over the top compared to the otherwise safe tone of the picture. Why not meet the town and its charred church when our eponymous heroes do and let the audience imagine the horrors happening for themselves? The serious western start and subsequent lighthearted adventure are mixed window dressings with little depth – even town names onscreen as they ride on to shooting contests and recruit more heroes is a superficial way to create scope. A slow ride toward the saloon with a man's reputation preceding him provides The Magnificent Seven with more western spirit. Poker, ordering whiskey, asking the barkeep for information – the gun clicks, cigarette smoke billows, and shotgun below the bar are tense! Our charming and ornery enlistees face-off against gunslingers on the roof and dodge bullets as they vow to protect Rose Creek. Of course, so many shows have already rifted on this famous heroes teaching farmers with pitchforks to fight plot, and this almost willingly plays into that generic western familiarity rather than adding anything new. The middle of The Magnificent Seven feels like one big montage as defense preparation builds – they walk, they plan, they booby trap trenches and magically train ridiculously bad townsfolk unable to throw knives or aim at any targets. Granted, viewers wouldn't accept a simple cut to the final battle with everything easy peasy, but the pace is forced and disoriented. We meet people for an hour and practice for another half hour before the titular boys get drunk and have some laughs over naming their guns women's names. If we knew their personalities equally, the bonding humor would happen on its own. Instead, cheery scenes are out of place amid brooding characters who do have history, religion, and reasons for doing what they do. The sardonic moments are better once we're under siege with our team shoulder to shoulder for one more huzzah. People are seriously wounded with well done blood and fire while tolling bells and prayers accent the lengthy but sometimes chaotic or confusing finale that squeezes three acts into one – the surprise defense, bleak enemy firepower retaliation, and the last sacrificial inspiration. The Magnificent Seven has serious and touching moments in the end, but the heroics come as we always knew they would, deflating some of the fine one on one justice and cathartic catching the bad guy entertainment.
Well, the piano player stops when Denzel Washington (Best Actor for Training Day but should have won for Malcolm X) walks into the saloon, oh yes. Sam Chisolm is an authorized warrant officer and man of the peace who would rather not use his quick draw unless provoked. He claims he isn't for hire but hears the proposition to help Rose Creek and assists without taking the gold they offer. His simmering rage suggests there must be a reason why, but Chisolm's going to see this through because he says these people deserve their lives back. The Magnificent Seven provides Washington some great dialogue for his on point delivery, even if that's because Chisolm speaks the most and tells others what to do. It's disappointing that the side eyes he receives and the racism of the era aren't addressed more, and the final scene explaining his history deserved a better thematic build. However, The Magnificent Seven really only has time to show his story and mostly does it right alongside heroic leaps through windows, a cool rearing horse, and a great cowboy silhouette. It might have been interesting to see a prequel of Chisolm alone becoming licensed to vendetta, but unfortunately, I'm not feeling Chris Pratt's (Jurassic World) gambler Josh Faraday. His old fashioned dialogue doesn't sound natural, and jokes about Koreans, American Indians, and Mexicans are unnecessary. The card tricks and fast draws don't hide the fact that Pratt's just playing the same cool guy he always does, and The Magnificent Seven wastes time on him being the funny pretty white guy when other characters have more interesting tales to tell. It's tough to take Faraday seriously even when he shoots off an enemy's ear, as Pratt's casting purely for the appeal is apparent. I shudder to think about some of the in-development casting rumors: The Magnificent Seven featuring Tom Cruise, Matt Damon, and five other guys you don't need to worry about playing cowboys! In contrast, Shakespeare quoting sharpshooter and southern gentleman Ethan Hawke (Daybreakers) sits at the campfire with Chisolm, reflecting on their history while increasingly reluctant to fire a rifle thanks to his own infamous Confederate past. They've been through these kind of hurrahs before, and this personal PTSD arc deserved more than just being a few somber moments amid lighter banter and gunfire.
Likewise, Lee Byung-hun (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (From Dusk till Dawn: The Series) each have their own specialty as Billy Rocks and Vasquez. There's a whiff of Asians in the West stigmas and Spanish dislike, too. However, the colorblind castings feel superficial – roles not for the historically accurate representation or to detail the discrimination they face but still little more than token appearances. We need more films like Posse addressing minorities in the West, but neither knife wielding Korean nor Mexican vigilante talk much and hardly receive up close shots or any camera focus. The blade action is cool, and a sword wielding nod to the Seven Samurai origins may have been on the nose, but seriously, why couldn't any of the minorities in The Magnificent Seven have been Pratt's second lead? Unsurprisingly, the appropriate casting of Martin Sensmeier (Salem) as Comanche warrior Red Harvest is also delightful to see yet under portrayed, resorting the character to always being hungry, eating raw meat, and disliking beans alongside typical mysticism fears from the rest of the team. He only speaks Comanche – or so they think – and the use of the bow and arrow amid all the rifle love deserved more showcasing. There should have been more to his rivalry with the Comanche counterpart fighting on the bad side, too – a Snake Eyes versus Storm Shadow one on one rather than a late blink and you miss it confrontation. The almost unrecognizable Vincent D'Onofrio's (Law & Order: Criminal Intent) spiritual mountain man Jack Horne is old, a bittersweet remnant of past ways. He's happy to do what's right and fight alongside men he can respect, and once again, deserved more attention. Righteousness won't do barely there Matt Bomer (Magic Mike) any good, but his wife Haley Bennett (The Girl on the Train) is almost part of the seven. Although her red hair, rosy cheeks, low cut shirts, and boob illumining lanterns aren't striving for costuming accuracy, Emma can shoot without Faraday's trying that flirtatious gun lesson cliché. Maybe it would be typical to have her be a teacher or nurse, but she deserved something stronger a husbandly connection. Of course, it's not shocking to see Peter Sarsgaard (Flightplan) as the villainous Bartholomew Bogue. He looks coked out, a snotty little asshole who hides behind Gatling guns and isn't much of a man when it comes to fighting himself. Bogue makes scary examples of children in the name of his so called industrial progress, however, his brutally over the top ruthless is absent for over an hour. Between all the permeating sarcasm, what should be personal terror strays into caricature – Bogue's almost there just because we need somebody to hate, and we don't discover his history with Chisolm until their final scene.
Blue skies, colorful prairies, and green valleys in The Magnificent Seven also look too modern, a scheme digitally over saturated rather than the dirty and dusty western rugged audiences expect. Rustic buildings, wagons, stagecoaches, and horses better set the mood amid fitting hoof beats, dynamite explosions, and gunfire. There's not much indoor action, but the dark saloon adds tension while real outdoor filming with windswept riding, rocky outcroppings, and mountain echoes build Old West atmosphere. The enemy charge is well done with steady zooms, choice slow motion, and upward horseback angles alongside unique knife battles, ax work action, riding feats, and fancy precision shooting. However, some transition scenes and silent montage moments are useless, and the pacing tries to keep up with today's in your face yet falls back on old strategies and cinematic tricks – the rope across that unseats a rider, a hidden trench with a surprise, or decoy ammunition distractions. A ridiculous amount of camera work also focuses on our men and their gun belts, panning up to the holster as one spins his six shooter or sweeping down as he bends to pick up the shot gun. Whether its to show off the bad ass gear or the tight chaps, once was enough – it's not sexy, just more like over compensation or penis envy. o_O The music for this Magnificent Seven is also woefully uneven. If this is supposed to be a heroic adventure, let's hear the theme! The unfinished score from the late James Horner (The Wrath of Khan) borrows cues, remaining contemporary and standard rather than instantly recognizable and rousing. Not until the movie ends are viewers treated to the familiar upbeats and a fun credits design that should have set the tone at the beginning. After such basic plots, hearing the music coda made me want to watch previous incarnations of The Magnificent Seven more than anything else. Therein is the trouble with all these reboots, sequels, and remakes today. Why tune in to these when you can just enjoy the original nostalgia again and again? Of course, I love the 1960 film, enjoy the follow ups, and really liked the brief 1998-2000 television series. Heck, I taped them of television on chewed up VHS, and wow, I feel really old by admitting I signed up for one of those early internet campaigns to save the show!
Westerns are ripe for a comeback because this is a genre that can encapsulate all our current gritty cynicism or let the good guys win when we need it. Rather than inserting superficial diversity with little time to explore all the characters, it's surprising this project wasn't another Magnificent Seven serial with time to address the history, racism, and personality of each hero. Were they hoping to make a movie franchise with the latest cool guys varying the seven each time? Unfortunately, this Magnificent Seven wavers between lighthearted adventure and innate lawlessness in a try hard PG-13 attempt more concerned with safely appealing to all audiences rather than balancing the cast and the heroics versus grit tone. At two hours plus, The Magnificent Seven delays a story we know and have seen many times – this picture needed more polish or substance and isn't as good as it should be. It's worth seeing through for fans of the cast, but this doesn't have a lot of repeat value. The gun violence may not be for young viewers, however, The Magnificent Seven can be a fun yarn for a movie night if you expect nothing more than temporary popcorn entertainment.