All Quiet on the Western Front…
Let’s start by expediting discussions in relation to the idea of this remake of The Magnificent Seven being a ‘diversity’ Western. In times of media outbidding, everything is prone to over-analysis, and cinema makes a good target for farfetched interpretations. I’m the first one to enjoy a good debate about the hidden meaning of The Wizard of Oz or The Shining, but this is just absurd when the makers of a movie, in this case, director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) or its main leads, Denzel Washington (Training Day) and Chris Pratt (Jurassic World) have pretty clearly expressed their motivations for participating in such a movie (basically being in a Western) and their opinions about this interpretation.
Time might prove me wrong but, whether you like it or not, it really seems that The Magnificent Seven is just regular Hollywood entertainment; the ‘diverse’ cast is merely a way to ensure that as a wider audience as possible will find a character to root for and there are no hidden messages other than giving the public what they want: the ever appreciated battle between good and bad, friendship, heroism and sacrifice.
Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 definitive masterpiece Seven Samurai introduced the ingenuous idea of a group of men with various backgrounds coming together to help defend a small village from the attacks of murderous bandits and in 1960, John Sturges ‘ The Magnificent Seven cleverly transposed this idea from feudal Japan to Western whilst gathering what would become one of the most famous casts ever seen (Yul Brynner (Westworld), Steve McQueen (Bullitt), Charles Bronson (Once upon a Time in the West), James Coburn (The Great Escape)) to fight Mexican bandit Eli Wallach (The Good, The Bad and The Ugly). Fuqua’s remake re-imagines Sturges’ version but in the process forgets an important ingredient which made the previous movies so compelling: the empathy towards its main characters. This is mainly due to the fact that their motivations, although not needing to be too explicit, remain quite obscure. Furthermore, although there are some bonding moments between the seven main characters, they are never compelling enough to create a real feeling of empathy during the ineluctable final showdown.
However, Fuqua is a very capable director and his movies, despite lacking real depth, always at least manage to deliver visually and The Magnificent Seven is no exception. Given substantial means by Sony/Columbia and MGM (the latter distributed the original The Magnificent Seven), he manages to make very good use of the gorgeous landscapes of Arizona whilst employing a wide range of iconic Western shots (the camera panning on a group of cowboys riding, the entrance in the town, the shots of the gunslingers hands on their guns, etc.). He is also very well supported in this task by a beautiful photography from Mauro Fiore (already in charge of the crepuscular photography of Fuqua’s Training Day) and by themes composed by the great James Horner (composer of masterpieces such as: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Aliens, Braveheart, among many others) before his tragic death in a plane crash in June 2015. These themes were composed before he actually saw any footage of the movie, and they are one of the greatest strengths of the remake as they give some of Fuqua’s shots a much welcomed epic yet solemn scale.
Unfortunately, Fuqua is not helped by a fairly average screenplay. Already handicapped by the aura of their illustrious predecessors, Richard Wenk (The Expendables 2, already a basic, yet efficient, star-studded action movie) and Nic Pizzolatto (creator of True Detective) only manage to reinforce the impression of a generic entertainment product. Even though the credits remind the link with Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni’s screenplay, this re-imagining only retains the idea of the seven title characters and leaves their coming together, in this ill-fated quest, on the verge of preposterousness. As mentioned earlier, this creates a severe lack of real bonding between them and prevents the audience to fully root for them other than on the basis of their inherent characteristics. This is even more disappointing when considering that at a running time approaching the 2h15min, and with an efficient first half, the writers definitely had time to do a better job. The Magnificent Seven just ends up an addition to the long list of movies which should have spent more time on character development and less on explosions (the absence of flashbacks, which I usually welcome because never really well employed, severely lacks doesn’t help either).
In this maelstrom of iconic shots and forgettable characters, Fuqua’s still manages to create a strong yet familiar character (Washington, as usual very good, in the role of the righteous bounty hunter) but he also under-exploit interesting ones (Ethan Hawke’s (Training Day) reluctant killer Goodnight Robicheaux and Peter Sarsgaard’s (Orphan) evil landowner Bartholomew Bogue). In a joint lead role, Chris Pratt (a spot-on cast in Guardian of the Galaxy) is disappointing, even sometimes irritating, as the handsome hero delivering punchlines quicker than he shoots bad guys.
I’m sure that this remake will be a successful crowd pleaser but I can only deplore this missed opportunity to add a clever re-interpretation to the pantheon of the mainstream Western genre, in the same way James Mangold’s great remake of 3:10 to Yuma did 10 years ago.
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