The Western is a hard genre to conquer. Not only does it come with standards set by Eastwood, but today’s political correct society threatens its very core, reminding us that violence begets violence and that it is never the answer to life’s problems. That being said, it is also a genre that won’t die. From Joel and Ethan Coen’s atmospheric actioner True Grit (2010) to Tarantino’s grisly and comical Django Unchained (2012) the dry dirt and grime of the West continues to be front and centre in cinema even in the 21st Century. Antoine Fuqua’s latest attempt The Magnificent Seven (2016) is another such piece, paying homage to its predecessors as a loud, bullish and brutal remake of the 1960’s classic, which itself is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954). Although it never quite lives up to its title, falling more under the banner of The Moderate Seven or The Meandering Seven, it does deliver some semblance of humanity, even if it amounts to nothing more than a stylish but forgetful posse piece.
Set in 1879, the film follows the trials and tribulations of Rose Creek, a small town situated nearby a literal goldmine run by the heavy-handed and egotistical industrialist Bartholomew Bogue. Looking to expand his business and take the townspeople’s land, Bogue murders and menaces his way to the top of the hierarchical chain, appearing as an unstoppable force to all but Emma Cullen, a proud widow seeking righteousness but willing to settle for revenge. Recruiting the brooding and mysterious Sam Chisolm, the duo go about securing a band of misfit mercenaries to fight for their just cause. From Joshua Faraday to Goodnight Robicheaux, normal names are as few and far between as the talent in the townspeople they set about training to fight. The story culminates, of course, with the big showdown, full of TNT, Gatling guns and sombre scores. The intense, bloody battle bears little weight though, with all the emotional investment sucked out in favour of pyrotechnics and a high body count.
The Western genre is bred deep in The Magnificent Seven, from the wide open spaces to the simple townsfolk and hardworking horses. We might never actually see a tumbleweed blow through town, but we never stop thinking that it might happen. Despite its numerous flaws, Fuqua cannot be punished for emulating the greats of old though, bringing a widescreen element to the western and invoking that old time feel through a series of saturated colours. It’s no Blazing Saddles (1974) or The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966), but dammit if it doesn’t work hard to ensure it lives up to their legacy. What lets it down is its dependence on violence. Where it was used to shock and silence audiences of yore, nowadays it is so ingrained in our filmic culture, most audience members don’t even bat an eyelid let alone wonder where all the blood is when so many lives are lost.
A blockbuster cast round out the title team, including Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Martin Sensmeier. Entrusted with the seemingly impossible task of tackling characters once inhabited by Hollywood heavyweights like Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, the most refreshing part of the new crew is that they meet the ethnic standards so often called upon in cinema. While Washington is a stoic and immovable force, his reason for joining the fight revealed in a standout monologue, it is Pratt who is the heart of the film, full of quips, one-liners and self-sacrificing notions that steal the show. The rest remain figures in the background however, defined by their killing skills and given little emotional depth. Similarly, Stellan Skarsgaard’s Bogue falls well flat of Eli Wallach’s terrifying and taut performance, full of selfish bravado and one-dimensional development.
The most touching moment in The Magnificent Seven though, comes not from what we see on screen, but what we hear behind the action. The film was the 158th and final soundtrack score from acclaimed composer James Horner, killed last year in a tragic plane crash and alongside the input from his long-time co-collaborator Simon Franglen, it is a resounding and momentous beat, echoing its predecessor even if not redefining it. Similarly, while the story may lose motivation and morality, the commitment to aesthetic saves it, cinematographer Mauro Fiore delivering some interesting and idealistic shots when not pounding the gunfire home. Perhaps the best example is the moment Chisolm is silhouetted on horseback against the blue-black sky, a frontiersman through and through.
Like any remake the real question regarding The Magnificent Seven is why. Why do we need it? Why is now the right time? Why should we spend our hard-earned money on it over everything else? Sadly, after slugging my way through its two-hour run-time, I still don’t quite have an answer. Despite its best efforts, The Magnificent Seven never quite gets its spurs spinning, instead a cumbersome cash-grab that leaves audiences feeling just a little empty. But thanks to its appealing performances and ability to stay true to its roots it’s not a complete write-off either. Revolutionary may not be in its vocabulary, but charismatic, clichéd and charming make the cut, ensuring that even if it doesn’t live up to its predecessors, it deserves to be mentioned among them.
Rating: 2.5 Cowboys out of 5
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