Film Review: ‘The Magnificent Seven’

the magnificent seven TIFF
Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt star in a remake of the 1960 Western classic that hits all the right buttons but misses the fun of the original. Maybe because back then, this plot wasn't old hat.

Now that the Summer of Rehashes is over, a lot of people suddenly seem to agree that remaking movies, especially when they’re beloved and indelible classics, is a lousy idea for Hollywood to be pursuing. It’s evidence of creative bankruptcy — an addiction to non-originality. That said, just because a movie is a copy doesn’t mean it’s bad. (There are good remakes, like “Ocean’s Eleven” or “Cape Fear,” and good sequels, like the “Bourne” films.) The cheeky but square, dutifully manufactured, ultimately uninspired remake of “The Magnificent Seven,” which kicks off the 41st Toronto Intl. Film Festival, points to a deeper reason why remakes often don’t pan out: The appeal of the original tends to be rooted in the way it expresses something of its era, so trying to recapture what made it winning is a fool’s game. You can reassemble the same plot and characters; what’s tricky is reigniting the material’s inner spark.

“The Magnificent Seven” is a case in point. The original, made in 1960, is a fondly remembered Western — itself a rawhide remake of Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” — that’s a “classic” more by dint of nostalgia than greatness. It’s graced with one of the most ecstatic musical themes in Hollywood history (Dun! Dun de dun! Dun! de dun-dun-dun!), but the movie itself is what Variety, in the old days, would have called a light-hearted, action-heavy oater. It gave seven actors, led by the diamond-sharp glare of Yul Brynner, a chance to strut their hambone stuff. The logic of remakes says: Why not round up a new cavalry of stars to step into their spurs? It’s not blasphemy.

Well, here’s why. When “The Magnificent Seven” came out, six years after Kurosawa’s epic, the premise was colorful and novel and, in its way, kind of late-1950s badass. Seven gunslingers band together, for mercenary reasons (but really because they’re noble wastrels), to save the residents of a Mexican village from an evil bandit. The size of the cast allowed for shtick and diversity: At heart, this was a non-serious Western about a bunch of machos who have to learn to work together, and who get to shoot up a town. (“Ocean’s 11,” a much worse movie made the same year, had a related premise.)

But consider, for a moment, how un-novel that premise sounds now. It has been more than 50 years since “The Magnificent Seven,” and since then countless movies have showcased the antic jostle and thrust, the shoulder-poke camaraderie of gunslingers in groups, starting with two memorably dark and bold ones in the late ’60s: “The Dirty Dozen” (which was “The Magnificent Seven” spiked with nihilism) and “The Wild Bunch” (Sam Peckinpah’s staggering free-range bloodbath of alienation). Fast forward to today, when action heroes in big-group form are legion. They’ve taken over the superhero genre (“The Avengers,” “X-Men,” “Suicide Squad”), they’re the new kings of pop sci-fi (“Guardians of the Galaxy”), they’re the defining dynamic of heist thrillers (from “Point Break” to the “Ocean’s” series), and they’ve staked out a manly-relic museum wing of B-movie kitsch (the “Expendables” films). There’s this rowdy bunch of sort of outlaw guys, see, and they all band together, and…snore. It worked in 1960 because it was fresh. In 2016, it’s old Stetson.

Yet if there’s a so-what? quality to it all, Antoine Fuqua’s “Magnificent Seven” is still a reasonably engaging movie for its first hour or so, when Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), a bounty hunter, gathers up a passel of supposedly disreputable but more-convivial-than-they-look cowboys for hire. It’s all because Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), a gold-greedy industrialist, wants to take over the town of Rose Creek and mine every inch of it, grabbing the land from the residents and paying them close to dirt. How do you make a black-hatted Western villain sing today? Eli Wallach had a silky menace in the original, but Sarsgaard just acts sulky and irked; he comes off as a corporate weakling protected by a wall of henchmen (though that’s supposed to be the point). At a meeting in the town church, he equates capitalism and democracy in the film’s token nugget of “relevance,” and when the townsfolk speak out against him, they get tomahawked in the back. For good measure, Bogue’s men set the church on fire.

Enter Denzel. Dressed in black, rocking a bolero hat, he saunters into a bar and messes with the bartender’s mind (he’s been hired to kill him), which Washington does better than anyone. It’s all in the ironic way he uses those upbeat, lawyerly cadences of his — he turns “friendly” into ominous. When Chisolm learns that the townsfolk have been given just three weeks before Bogue grabs their land, he sets out — for a price — to put together a band of protectors.

If Washington is the film’s sly center of gravity, Chris Pratt, as the hard-drinking reckless charmer Josh Faraday, who uses card tricks to distract his enemies into letting him shoot them, has its most combustible star quality. He had it in “Guardians of the Galaxy” too, and in “The Magnificent Seven” Pratt pops onscreen. He’s like a good guy with an outlaw inside — a gunman who can hardly wait to start shooting. Which makes the other five men seem like kernels who pop about halfway. Ethan Hawke shows up as Goodnight Robicheaux, a haunted former Confederate soldier who has interesting facial hair but not much personality. He turns out to be old buddies with Chisolm — we can tell because Washington flashes his smile for the first, and just about only, time — and he also brings along his Asian road-show partner, Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), who’s a wizard with a pen-knife. This is very much a multiculti “Magnificent Seven”: In addition to Billy, there is Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a “Texican” with a mean streak, and Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), a Comanche in face paint that he changes like a mood ring. Aside from Washington and Pratt, though, the only actor who makes a true impression is Vincent D’Onofrio as Jack Horne, who’s like an off-his-rocker religious-nut Grizzly Adams in a long furry animal-tail cap (Pratt: “I believe that bear was wearing people’s clothes”).

Fuqua is trying for John Ford meets Sergio Leone: a funky classical sweep, with room for delirious shootouts. The trouble is that he mimics the trademarks of those directors without their élan, and the plot that was once catchy is now rote. Chisolm gathers up his men, they head into town and shoot the handful of goons Bogue has put in place, then they wait for Bogue to retaliate by bringing in a vast army of goons. That’s it: No twists, no fuss. Fuqua has shown that he can be a subtle, layered filmmaker (just watch Wesley Snipes and Hawke in the dread-ridden indie cop drama “Brooklyn’s Finest”), but his Hollywood movies have a way of clinging to the noisy violent surface.

Which is all the second hour of “The Magnificent Seven” is. Bogue shows up with his army and a gleaming black-and-gold Gatling gun, and the film basically says, “Let the Old West mortal-combat videogames begin!” Pistols, tomahawks, bow and arrows, that bullet-spraying Gatling gun: All are deployed to standard destructive effect. That seven sharpshooters could take on this many bad guys and never raise our pulses by a beat says something about the audience threshold for outrageous violence – but then, we’ve seen it all 70 times before. And though, in the end, not everyone gets out alive, it would be an overstatement to say that created any sense of loss. In the original, it did, but that’s not about to happen in a remake that would have been more aptly called “The Adequate Seven.”

Film Review: 'The Magnificent Seven'

Reviewed in New York, Aug. 24, 2016. (In Toronto Film Festival — opener.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 128 MIN.

Production

A Columbia Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer release of an LStar Capital, Village Roadshow Pictures, Pin High Prods., Escape Artists production. Producers: Roger Birnbaum, Rodd Black. Executive producers: Antoine Fuqua, Bruce Berman, Walter Mirisch, Ben Waisbren.

Crew

Director: Antoine Fuqua. Screenplay: Nic Pizzolatto, Richard Wenk. Camera (color, widescreen): Mauro Fiore. Editor: John Refoua.

With

Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Peter Sarsgaard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier.

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  1. jitender says:

    It was a very inspiring movie showing that when we are in team we can make impossible things not just possible but easy to achieve our inspiring goals . Hat’s off to the director and the actors of this movie , really love it .

  2. Just saw at the theaters, but thought I would share here that I enjoyed this movie, as did my son. It was not magnificent, but it was very good. 7 out of 10

  3. Jerry Ellis says:

    Frankly , you are right about a lot in your comments about ” Magnificent Seven ” . But here’ s the deal . I am old enough ( 68 Sept. 30 ) to have fond memories of Magnificent Seven . I have loved the Western Genre since I saw John Wayne in ” The Searchers ” as a nipper . That said , I loved Spaghetti Westerns . And John Ford . Clint Eastwood , Sergio Leone , High Noon , My Name is Nobody . I adored them all ! But Lancaster , Henry Fonda. James Stewart . And my God ! The Duke ! The litany of the western character actors who graced the screen from 1950 to the Nineties are names written in gold letters in the book of Hollywood Names ! Frankly , I love the cast of this remake and no matter what you think of the effort , I am going to head over to the old Cinema next week and watch the magic pictures on the screen !

  4. Among the differences between the 1950’s progenitor and the 1960 remake is cultural. What seems common is viewers leaning toward empathy.

    Regardless of genre, the story requires an audience looking for a clear cause of a phenomenal event. Human frailty doesn’t change that much in fifty years.

    If the film has its viewers learn “the pain” of a character’s suffering, the audience softens a bit; they want the character(s) to win.

    In real life, the seven actors were not the “stars” they would become. A strong, notable lead performer, Yul Brenner, together with a few up -and-coming actors (Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn) added to the excitement of the film as well as the cultural norms of the 1960s (sexism, racism, xenophobia ). The availanle media: no one had the certainty that the movie would wind up on something called “the internet” or other media
    in some form.

    Remaking an old movie is time travel, whereby you know the future in 1960, while convincing people who are not born yet that this future will exist. Huh? Right.

    Time changes things. The permance of such things is sometimes not seen by fortune in men’s eyes.

    • Among the differences between the 1950’s progenitor and the 1960 remake is cultural. What seems common is viewers leaning toward empathy.

      Regardless of genre, the story requires an audience looking for a clear cause of a phenomenal event. Human frailty doesn’t change that much in fifty years.

      If the film has its viewers learn “the pain” of a character’s suffering, the audience will soften a bit; they want the character(s) to win.

      In real life, the seven actors in the 1960 version were not the “stars” they would become. A strong, notable lead performer, Yul Brenner, together with a few up -and-coming actors (Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn) added to the excitement of the film as well as the cultural norms of the 1960s (sexism, racism, xenophobia ).

      And of course…that Elmer Bernstein score.

      Of the available media: no one had the certainty that the movie would wind up on something called “the internet” or other media in some form.

      Remaking an old movie is time travel, whereby you know the future in 1960, while convincing people who are not born yet that this future will exist. Huh? Right.

      Time changes things. The permance of such things is sometimes not seen by fortune in men’s eyes.

  5. Brian Hannan says:

    What’s largely forgotten is that The Magnificent Seven was a flop in the U.S. on original release. Thew producers themselves were so dubious about the product that they wanted to cut it. Not only did it not receive a premiere, the first showing in New York was relegated to Brooklyn rather than the prestigious Broadway opening accorded to big-budget films like this.
    Brian Hannan, author of “The Making of The Magnificent Seven” (McFarland Publishing)
    .

  6. Tim Parker says:

    What’s up with Hollywood endless stream of remakes? Denzel is overrated anyway. I’ll pass on this. It all pales in comparison to Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai”

  7. bill20 says:

    America does not need another violent movie. This has to stop. But who tells the teen spoiled brats who rule Hollywood?

  8. Mark says:

    So… It SUCKS… not surprised. I’ll watch it in streaming or maybe not even that…

  9. Geo says:

    what a minute, I think Chris Pratt is playing the same character in all his movies

  10. Tony Bilotto says:

    Very hard to make cowboy movies without real men-perhaps robots will fare better in Westworld.

  11. Manuel Nogueira says:

    I agree with Gleiberman: remaking movies, especialy beloved classics as The Magnificent Seven, is a lousy idea, it reeks of un-originality and of a total lack of ideas. I can understand the decision of making a new film adaptation of a beloved novel – different generations have different ways of reading the same story and it’s normal if you’re a filmaker to want to make your vision of that story into a new film (whether the film will be a good one or not is a different question altogether). But how to explain remakes? If you’re adapting a foreign film to your country’s reality, I can understand it and it can even result in a classic like The Magnificent Seven. But remaking one of your own classics? That is a decision I can only explain by sheer greed, by wanting to milk the money cow as much as you can. I hope this summer of disaster for remakes has shown Hollywood that audiences want original films and not re-imaginings of old ones. I don’t mind sequels, if they’re good, but no more remakes, please.

    • timparker999 says:

      There’s one recent exception: True Grit

      • Manuel Nogueira says:

        Actualy no, because True Grit is not a remake of the John Wayne classic but a new take on Charles Portis’s novel. The Coens said so themselfs in an interview when they were promoting the film. Don’t get me wrong: I love that film and also think it’s one of the best westerns I ever saw. But only in a very broad sense can you call it a remake.

      • Dalton says:

        The True Grit remake as terrific. One of my favourite modern westerns. I can’t wait to see if this movie joins the list.

  12. cadavra says:

    But you left unanswered a key question: Was Elmer Bernstein’s iconic theme music used at all?

    BTW, it should be remembered that there were three sequels and a TV series, so it’s not like the premise hasn’t been rummaged through before.

  13. blue439 says:

    Gleiberman basically says the concept is tired, but then undercuts his own point my naming several successful recent examples, some that came out this very summer. The problem is, as much fun as it is to revisit the genre, the traditional Western can only be stretched so far. The ’50s and early ’60s were far simpler times and that was reflected by the popularity of Westerns. When the world got more complicated, simple black and white good and bad guys could no longer adequately represent that world even in popular entertainment. No wonder this kind of Western died out.

  14. Angry American says:

    I’ll make a deal with the Studios, give me $10 Million and I’ll make a movie as good as their Ghostbusters on estrogen. Or they can invest $50million in a movie that will lose half the money these blockbusters are loosing and I’ll even thrown in a few spankings to boot.

  15. Angry American says:

    Yippy! One more western given the BLM treatment like Will Smith in Wild Wild West. Heck Will’s pants weren’t even tight enough, Robert Conrad had to drill weep holes in the crouch of his.

  16. Jack says:

    Legends of Tomorrow is the same thing.

  17. Bollocks Marlarkey says:

    Not sure to whom Owen Glieberman is referring when he says “a lot of people suddenly seem to agree that remaking movies, especially when they’re beloved and indelible classics, is a lousy idea for Hollywood to be pursuing. It’s evidence of creative bankruptcy — an addiction to non-originality.” And while I totally agree, we will see if Follywood will actually put its money where its mouth is, and sadly that’s mostly what Follywood is interested in: money not substance.

    • EricJ says:

      He’s referring to producers who have suddenly discovered that action movies just aren’t pulling in audiences at home as much as they used to–Or at least that studios have -forgotten- how to make an old fashioned action movie that isn’t part of a corporate “franchise” like Fast&Furious, or just doesn’t have Tom Cruise in it.

      And so, just like 80’s Robocop, Ghostbusters and Footloose got remakes, to ask “Why don’t we go back to theaters like we used to in the good old days?”, studios are now looking to iconic 60’s and 70’s Action titles to try and get audiences back to theaters, hoping that -that- genre isn’t now an endangered species as well.

  18. JOE S HILL says:

    Yes,,another MGM remake disaster,with Sony’s Columbia Pictures,co-financing this pathetic movie! does Metro Goldwyn Mayer not get the message,,you listening Gary Barber? STOP with the remakes!! “THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN” is a United Artists franchise,and the original movie series is WAY better then all this remade shit they’re throwing in our faces,,enough already! MGM needs a better plan,here-and reinstating United Artists is a damn good start,,NOT trying to remake the classics,,waste of time!!

    • Dalton says:

      “Why don’t we go back to theatres like we used to in the good old days?” They’re too expensive.
      In the old days I saw a double feature- Dr. No and From Russia with Love for about $5 and another $5 for snacks. Today it costs about $25 and up. With most of that increase very recent.

      One can still find a $7 an hour job though. Except that unpaid internships are apparently all the rage.

      As for quality and remakes- hard too say. I’ve always found that when critics like it, it’s boring, when I like it they hate it. So it’s very difficult to choose a movie these days. Personally I stick with things that have some familiarity like franchises and saty far, far away from critically acclaimed movies. I’ll watch those on TV.

  19. nobody important says:

    Well, guess I’ll wait for it to come out on Prime. Pity it isn’t better.

  20. kenfurman46 says:

    Boring. More Hollywood laziness. Why is this not fun! The actors aren’t fun not the directors of today. Ergo — they rely on
    More gore and less wit.

  21. EricJ says:

    When the original Seven came out, Kurosawa’s movie was still fresh in everyone’s mind. (James Coburn reportedly took his laconic knife-thrower role saying “Is my character that sword-expert one?”) Japanese bandits attacked peasants, so Mexican banditos attacked farmers, and Eli Wallach was the head bandito.
    But because modern movies are so determined to have A VILLAIN that our heroes can defeat, we now have to have the town fall foul of Hedley Lamarr’s gold plot? Or did Fuqua get all his old western memories in a blender and try to throw in a few railroad-baron villains from Sergio Leone?

    There’s a reason why this movie was made that has nothing to do with the original movie, so it only makes sense that they were making this up as they went along.

  22. Angry American says:

    Is it a PG or PG-13 or M site, I have standards you know.

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