“It was magnificent,” says frontierswoman Emma (Haley Bennett) of her town’s battle for freedom. Notice she doesn’t say they were. The seven hired gunmen who fought that fight can’t even spell “magnificent,” and it’s the last word they’d call themselves, after “misfit,” “murderous,” “miscreant,” “malignant,” and just plain old “mad.”
The Magnificent Seven’s title is a wink. Proper society has no use for a bounty hunter (Denzel Washington), a knife thrower (Byung-hun Lee), a Confederate sharpshooter (Ethan Hawke), a Comanche warrior (Martin Sensmeier), a raging bear (Vincent D’Onofrio), a Mexican outlaw (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and a drunk magician (Chris Pratt) — that is, until civilization needs mercenaries who will die protecting it. Sacrifice gives them honor.
In John Sturges’s 1960 original — itself based on Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai — the joke was that his grunts weren’t even protecting their own people. They were hired to cross the border and defend one group of starving Mexicans from another, more violent group of starving Mexicans. Everyone’s pathetic. The townspeople are cowards, the thieves are desperate, and the killers have no business risking their lives for strangers. Why bother? Even the main villain can’t understand. “A man like you? Why?” croaks mustachioed Eli Wallach to hero-of-a-sort Yul Brynner. Brynner doesn’t answer, and neither does the film — it’s more powerful to ask the audience to figure it out.
Fifty-six years later, new director Antoine Fuqua tidies up the plot. This is an American movie about Americans, and to prove it, the film’s first shot is a spacious sky and purple mountain majesties above some damned purty amber waves of grain. Now we’re up near Sacramento facing down a bad guy we have to hate: Peter Sarsgaard’s Bartholomew Bogue, a rich gold miner who stands up in church and proclaims capitalism as God. After Bogue’s men shoot down Emma’s husband and bully the locals into signing over their land, she hires Washington’s Sam Chisholm, who rounds up the rest of his bloodthirsty mob. Save nice Americans and defeat a proto-corporation? Why, of course.
Fuqua’s made two clean piles separating good and evil, and in doing so, he’s thrown away the film’s point. Now we can trade our conscience for a bucket of popcorn. Today’s The Magnificent Seven is just another superhero flick that spends half its running time assembling a band of bulletproof daredevils. Which makes sense — the original inspired The Avengers, which published its first comic three years after it was a hit.
But coming full circle is just another way of drawing a zero. It’s hard to care about more one-shot Johnnies with magical aim and unpierceable hides (until the script decides to whack a few to raise the stakes). They live lives that are so weaponized that at the dinner table, they don’t even own forks — only hands and knives. At least their death scenes are great, as are their death-causing gags, like when one goon is flung into an upright coffin. Now that’s a tidy kill.
Once the guns start blasting, Fuqua is at his best. He neatly maps out the fighters, sets up the surprises, and lets the carnage rip. It’s choreographed chaos with such a numbing body count that eventually you stop caring about people and focus only on those poor, innocent horses. There won’t be much town left to save, even if they save it.
All the yapping before the blowout is a little off-kilter, like riding a horse with three legs. Pratt and most of the crooks are in a comedy; Washington and the townsmen are suffering a drama. The two tones intersect once when Washington is asked what he’d like the gang to do if he dies. “Avenge me?” he shrugs. Washington’s grand entrance tracks the lone black cowboy riding alone into a small town. The yokels pop out their eyes in shock. Someone growls, “What the hell is he doing here?!” For a second, I thought Fuqua had remade the wrong classic Western — maybe he mistakenly grabbed Blazing Saddles. Was the unseen man upset with Washington’s skin or his job? But the scene moves on and we’re never sure what he meant, besides that Fuqua loves having invisible nobodies shout late-added lines offscreen. (My favorite was during a campfire dinner when some jokester hollered, “I’ll have some more beans!”)
The cast is great, though they can handle more acting than they’re tasked with here. Fuqua adds diversity to the first film’s all-white of the West with Latino, Asian, and Native American characters, and Lee’s high-ponytailed blade master is the coolest fighter in the flick. (Runner-up is D’Onofrio’s lumbering beast-man who’s strong enough to tackle a horse but talks with the weak warble of an old man demanding more butterscotch.) Yet the script doesn’t give him — or really anyone — much of a personality. The characters are different, not individual. Fuqua’s focus is external, the way it looks to see this America, our America, join forces to create a free land. He gives Pratt in particular endless hero shots but no inner life. Instead, he gets to sum up the movie’s spirit, eyeballing Garcia-Rulfo and grinning, “Oh and good, we’ve got a Mexican!”
But even if this Magnificent Seven is middling, never fear: There will be others. That name gets recycled for any gang that counts six plus one, be they wrestler Ric Flair’s stable of heels or the 1996 Olympic women’s gymnastics team — the one where Kerri Strug clinched the USA’s gold medal by sticking her landing with a twisted ankle. Now that’s magnificent.