Friday, September 23, 2016

The (Not-Quite) Magnificent Seven

The remake of 1960's The Magnificent Seven starts in much the same manner, with a over-the-top villain (Peter Sarsgaard) threatening the prosperity of a peaceful farming town. Unable to protect themselves a small group (Haley Bennett and Luke Grimes) leave the town looking to hire gunmen with their meager resources. What they find is bounty hunter who helps recruit a motley crew of cowboys and outlaws willing to take on impossible odds for little reward.

There are some important differences between the two films (and not only the fact that the setting is moved from Mexico to a nondescript location somewhere in the Old West). The first is choosing to make the quest personal for one member of seven which changes the climax of the film in ways that aren't necessarily improvements. As with the other changes (such as the town's reaction to the outlaws, the makeup of the seven themselves, and a more dramatic tone to the movie), choosing to make the lead character's choice as much about vengeance as justice is an important distinction. Because of this, and the more dramatic slant to other aspects of the story, the remake lacks the larger rousing heroic scale of the original.

While the original gave us Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Horst Buchholz, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, and Brad Dexter as our heroes, the new seven is made up of Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Martin Sensmeier. It's an unusual mix of hardened killers and quippy smart-asses, but the script makes it work (even the oddball nature of D'Onofrio's character). Sarsgaard (whose performance is one of the film's biggest weaknesses) is certainly a step down from Eli Wallach as the film's villain. So cliche, his character does everything short of tying a damsel to the railroad tracks.

The film extends the opening sequence of the film to nearly three-times its original length as the lead cowboy recruits his team of rag-tag heroes (in a sequence which has been aped by everything from sitcom television to Ocean's Eleven). Waiting to deliver the first big sequence until halfway through the film, director Antoine Fuqua continues to build the tension as the seven hit the streets of Rose Creek for the first time (in the best sequence of the film).

Lacking the score of Elmer Bernstein and choosing to be a bit grittier than the original, the remake works as a drama but does waste some of its best resources (such as an underutilized Matt Bomer who bows out far too soon). I will give Fuqua and his team credit attempting to balance a more realistic view of the violence with a series of over-the-top action sequences. In an era where everyone is attempting to create franchises, Fuqua is only interested in a single film which, even if not as good as the original, still delivers a complete story of mostly-compelling characters. The attempt to balance a more serious take on the Hollywood western adapted from Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai helps the remake stand apart from the original, although its attempt to bring in some of that same humor (including lifting direct lines from the 60s film) often fail to hit the target.

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