Everything Old is New in the New Old West
In a recent Movie Mob video, friend and colleague Emmanuel Noisette shared his list of "Five Things Every Western Needs". Consciously or not, Eman created a note-perfect, five-minute distillation of Antoine Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven remake, delivered in one-twenty-sixth the time. This “new” film is so full of crowd-pleasing clichés that it serves as a testament to the ability of star-power, filmmaker cache, and branding to triumph over originality. Had Mag7 2016 been called Rose Creek’s Revenge; been directed by Shane Van Dyke; and starred Michael Ealy and Charlie Day instead of Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt, I suspect this thing would have died in development, gunned down in the proverbial empty street at high noon.
I think you should go see it. I rarely recommend films that take no chances, have said everything that their particular genre has said (and said better), and that exist solely to cash in on a name that, among the majority of today’s moviegoing audience, elicits only the faintest of bell rings.* In this case, Fuqua seasons his tried-and-true Western-movie comfort food with a dynamic cast and some truly exciting visuals, which, for just a moment or two, might trick you into thinking you’re eating a gourmet treat.
The new version’s screenplay (by writers Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto, and based on Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni’s script for The Seven Samurai) differs from the 1960 film in a few key ways. But the heart of the story is pure gang-of-rebels-fighting-their-way-out-of-a-small-town goodness (which, admittedly, I’m a sucker for). Haley Bennett stars as Emma Cullen, whose beloved town of Rose Creek has been targeted for economic demolition by nefarious land magnate Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). After Bogue and his men set fire to the local church and kill a few key citizens to make sure everyone knows they mean business, Emma takes up a collection to hire the baddest mercenaries money can buy.
She meets a bounty hunter named Chisolm (Washington), who has a run-in with snarky gunslinger/amateur magician Josh Faraday (Pratt), who in turn helps recruit the rest of the titular band of in-it-for-the-money warriors destined to help Rose Creek stand up to Bogue’s bullies and reclaim their land in a bloody, climactic shoot-out. Pratt is the key to this whole film; not his character, but the actor himself. Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven is less an adaptation of a Western than a re-skinned version of Guardians of the Galaxy,** crossed with a self-serious version of Blazing Saddles (I half-expected to see Bogue look up “landsnatching” in the dictionary).
It took a few scenes to shake the feeling that Pratt was just doing “Old West Star Lord”, but Fuqua and the writers put their stamp on the archetype, making Faraday into a charismatic but stone-cold killer. The rest of the gang follow suit, from the rogue-ish façade of ex-Confederate officer Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) to the selectively religious protestations of man-bear Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), the Seven reveal characteristics about themselves that don’t quite sync with surface assessments (another genre trope that is multiplied, rather than turned on its head).
Perhaps because the filmmakers knew they weren’t headed into original territory, they felt comfortable just letting us hang out with these colorful characters. The found-family paradigm is one of Mag7’s selling points; audiences aren’t meant to get caught up in the specifics of Bogue’s land grab any more than they are the mechanics of Ronan the Accuser’s (poor) plan for galactic domination, or the (indistinguishable) Fast & Furious villains’ (equally poor) schemes for stealing cars/money/drugs/data.
The other selling point is the fact that you can feel The Magnificent Seven as tactile entertainment. The sets, costumes, and locations are as authentic and lavish as a studio-backed blockbuster might make them. If there’s any CGI here, I couldn’t spot it, and that includes the spectacular explosions, stabbings, shootings, and Gatling gun havoc that Bogue and his men wreak on Rose Creek at the end.
That’s only a spoiler if you haven’t seen Django or The Wild Bunch. In the latter film, though, Sam Peckinpah used heavy artillery as a metaphor for the new age wiping out the Old West; here, it shows up because it was used in other Westerns. If you’re looking for a weighty Fall film that comments on modern society by reflecting on a primitive one, you won’t find it in Mag7. You will find a saddlebag full of wholly satisfying, empty intellectual calories that is fun (and surprisingly touching) while it lasts—which is more than I can say for ninety percent of the movies that preceded this movie in 2016’s dreary, whizz-bang-whatever summer season.
*This is pure speculation on my part, but I’d wager those who know about 1960’s The Magnificent Seven have no interest in seeing a mega-watt, glossy do-over—unless the studio or the press could give some assurance that this new incarnation is A) necessary, B) faithful, or C) superior. None of these is the case, which means the target audience for Mag7 is between 18 and 34, and assumes the term “cinephile” has something to do with child pornography.
**Which also starred Pratt as a snarky mercenary headlining a group of misfits on a mission, and also heavily lifted from another source—namely 1977’s Star Wars, which was itself inspired by Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. The circle is, indeed, complete.