133 min. | PG-13
One school of thought says remakes are a plague upon filmmaking, a desperate fear of risk-taking that encourages recycling proven concepts. A smaller school of thought that carries a caveat that a remake can do something radical and daring with the original premise. Allow me to make another case with The Magnificent Seven: What if a remake served to return a kind of movie we’ve forgotten how to appreciate?
Director Antoine Fuqua’s new The Magnificent Seven isn’t even remaking something that was original itself, since John Sturges’ 1960 classic was an American re-telling of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 Seven Samurai. But the 1960 Seven represents a brand of classic cinematic Western that has more modern resonance that we might realize.
The story basics have changed little: A town is under siege from a ruthless big shot—in this case, mining boss Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard)—and his personal army. There’s a seemingly hopeless mission by the townspeople—represented by widowed Emma (Haley Bennett)—to hire men for the likely-suicidal job of protecting them. And when one man—bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington)—agrees to assist, there’s a gathering of an additional six to make the Magnificent Seven: gambler Joshua Faraday (Chris Pratt); sharpshooter Robichaux (Ethan Hawke); knife expert Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee); criminal Vasquez (Manuel García-Rulfo); Indian tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio); and Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier).
That’s something of a shift from the alpha-male casting of the 1960 version. The script tosses out a few bits of back-story for our reluctant heroes, including hints at Chisolm’s own history with Bogue, and Civil War PTSD shaking Robichaux’s confidence. There’s charisma in individual performances, particularly Pratt’s devil-in-his-eye and Sarsgaard’s oily conviction as the villainous Bogue. In general, though, this Magnificent Seven doesn’t seem particularly interested in plumbing psychological depths, which is a bit of a problem when characters’ lives hang in the balance but they haven’t fully earned our concern.
Yet a throwback vibe makes even superficiality feel like part of a plan. This is the kind of movie that introduces its cowboy protagonist riding in silhouette against the sun, and has him walk into the saloon with a presence that hushes the patrons and silences the piano. A scene like that—complete with Pratt checking out the cards of his fellow poker players after they flee—might have played as a ridiculous Western cliché, but the movie embraces this iconography. As a director of action, Fuqua’s a meat-and-potatoes guy, which helps when the final hour is dedicated to the climactic siege. But he also understands how an effective final conflict can come down to two men facing off on a dusty street.
This isn’t just a story about Good Guys vs. Bad Guys, but about people standing up for what’s right. It might be tempting to attach a “revisionist Western” label to this film because of the heroes’ ethnic diversity, and there are satisfying tidbits about how these men could easily be enemies but choose mutual respect. Maybe that’s a tale that needs telling in this world. As the rousing, legendary Magnificent Seven theme plays, it doesn’t feel like a reminder of an old movie; it’s a reminder of the stories about proud people fighting for justice that we wish didn’t seem so old-fashioned.