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.”