2016’s The Magnificent Seven is the very definition of "pretty good." It's not perfect, and it doesn't transcend or reinvent the Western genre, but it's a confident old-fashioned cowboy flick bolstered by competent filmmaking and an enormously likeable ensemble cast. A remake of the iconic 1960 western of the same name, The Magnificent Seven reunites director Antoine Fuqua with Training Day actors Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke, and though there isn't much in the way of depth or subtext, the resulting flick is easy to enjoy. Not to mention, it's arguably a few notches above the last classic Western remake (2010's True Grit).
Set in the late 19th Century, the remote town of Rose Creek is being bled dry by the ruthless, iron-fisted industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who seeks to continue amassing riches by setting up a gold-mining operation. When Bogue begins killing the residents of Rose Creek to scare them into moving, the recently widowed Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) sets out to find help, and happens upon skilled warrant officer Sam Chisolm (Washington). Convincing the stranger to help repel Bogue, Chisolm assembles a team for the fight ahead, including wise-cracking rapscallion Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), skilled tracker Horne (Vincent D'Onofrio) as well as former soldier Goodnight Robicheaux (Hawke) and his Oriental partner Billy (Byung-hun Lee). Clearing the area of Bogue’s enforcers, the squad begin preparing for all-out war, and work to train the remaining townspeople to fight for their town.
Any remake is met with a certain amount of public outcry on principal alone, though some have been able to overlook this in the case of The Magnificent Seven since the original John Sturges-directed film was itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa's 1954 masterpiece Seven Samurai. Here's the thing: The Magnificent Seven isn't exactly sacred like, say, the Dollars trilogy or Rio Bravo, and even though the 1960 picture is a terrific, crowd-pleasing Western, there is certainly room to reinterpret the malleable premise. Naturally, with the film carrying a reported $90 million price tag, it looks impressive from top to bottom, with meticulous production design and lavish 35mm cinematography giving vivid life to the Old West. (Even though lighting is a touch too dark at times, and some of the digital effects shots are obvious.) This is the last score to be written by the late James Horner, and it's a real standout, carrying many of the composer's trademark flourishes, including a rousing reprisal of the original movie's iconic theme.
Fuqua continues to show that he's one of the better guys in Hollywood when it comes to making unadulterated guy movies aimed at an adult audience, standing alongside the likes of Joe Carnahan and David Ayer. There are various skirmishes scattered throughout the movie, but the climax is something else; the story culminates with a spectacularly explosive extended action sequence, finding Fuqua in his element, directing the hell out of the carnage. Carrying a PG-13 rating, the film certainly has its brutal moments, but Fuqua doesn't dwell on the gruesome details as much as he usually does. A full-blooded R-rated version might have been interesting, but The Magnificent Seven simply doesn't need extreme levels of blood, especially since classic cowboy pictures were mostly bloodless. And even though this remake plays out with an action blockbuster sensibility, Fuqua refuses to show sentimentality towards the characters, even the leads. Nobody is invincible, even though bad guys go down after a single bullet or arrow while the heroes can keep going after getting shot multiple times.
The Magnificent Seven could have been a simple, pared-down 80-minute actioner, but it runs a hefty 130 minutes, displaying adequate patience in the build-up to the climactic shootout. Penned by Richard Wenk (The Equalizer) and Nic Pizzolatto (TV's True Detective), it's possible to grow to care about the characters, and appreciate them for their respective limitations and qualities. There's plenty of clever interplay and bantering, too, which further humanises the titular seven. Above all, there are real stakes here; it's easy to become invested in the story. Nevertheless, the film lacks the underlying themes of the original movie, which explored the hollowness of life as a gun for hire. There's nothing much going on beneath the surface here beyond its black-and-white views on villainy and morality. Perhaps this was a deliberate move to make for a more refreshing, easily-digestible action flick, but the film nevertheless feels hollow on the whole.
It almost goes without saying, but the cast here doesn't match the pure badassery of the original film, which had Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen and Robert Vaughn - just to name a few - but the new selection of actors are effective nevertheless. Although it seems as if the producers were consciously working through an ethnicity checklist for maximum international box office appeal, the diversity actually allows each of the characters to stand out with their own distinctive characteristics and skills. Leading the pack is Washington, who's confident and charismatic as a highly-trained gunslinger, while Hawke gets more dramatic material to chew on as a disillusioned soldier who's haunted by the horrors of the Civil War. Meanwhile, it seems as if Pratt has been practicing his whole life to play a cowboy, and he relishes the opportunity, delivering an agreeably idiosyncratic performance. The other members of the titular team hit their marks respectively, and they all share a believable chemistry. As for Sarsgaard, he sinks his teeth into this villainous role, with a hamminess reminiscent of Western antagonists from old Hollywood pictures. Out of the Rose Creek residents, Bennett makes the biggest impression as the fiery widow, while the rest of the townsfolk are expendable.
For those seeking an entertaining latter-year blockbuster, The Magnificent Seven should scratch your itch. Although not an instant classic able to sit alongside Unforgiven or Open Range, it is a thrilling ride nevertheless, more in line with recent endeavours like 2015's Bone Tomahawk or the insanely underrated The Salvation. It's also nowhere near as good as Seven Samurai, but who the hell expected it to be in the first place? Flaws and all, The Magnificent Seven is primo entertainment.