Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and Yul Brynner — that’s a pretty tough trio to beat in any context and just one half of the star-studded cast of the original Magnificent Seven. That Western classic directed by John Sturges was itself a rebranding of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954) and while the cross-genre translation made sense back in 1960, the current redux by Antoine Fuqua (Shooter and Training Day) doesn’t offer much of a spin besides boasting a diverse crew (an African American, Asian, Native American, and Mexican among the mix). Even then, with the exception of one “his kind” comment in reference to Byong-hun Lee’s blade-wielding character of Chinese descent, there’s not one drop of racial tension. Had the septet been hot pink fuchsia, the bad guy’s wouldn’t take notice. It certainly wouldn’t flavor their dull backlot dialog, but it might improve their ability to shoot and hit anything, because as the movie has it, their blazing guns — sans a lone Gatling gun mounted outside the cow-poke town — couldn’t strike the broadside of Kim Kardashian’s famous posterior.
Fuqua’s posse, which features Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, and Ethan Hawke, is a pretty well-armed lot, but as they team up and ride out it becomes clear that something’s off with this Seven. Sure, the scenery’s panoramic and lovely, but after a long, bouncy canter across the prairie, saddle soreness sets in well before the first bullet’s chambered. What’s missing are personality and philosophical idealism let alone brooding, macho conflict — all requisite when telling a tale of morally ambiguous men walking in a lawless land. It’s as if Fuqua took Sturges’ blueprint, connected the dots, then forgot to bring his palette to the set.
Things begin promisingly enough as the townsfolk of Rose Creek hole up in a church, fearful of a land baron with the asinine name of Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). They’re not sure whether to give into his demands or head for the hills, but before the assemblage can make any decision, in storms Bogue — as if he’d been listening outside the door the whole time — flanked by bearded minions in 10-gallon hats and dusters, a few of which spit tobacco on the floor just to underscore their poor manners and insatiable irreverence. Bogue wants all the town’s land at $20 a lot, so he can mine it for gold. I’m not exactly sure how far $20 would go back in 1878 or what the real estate market might be in Rose Creek. It’s a fairly nice, verdant place, but it seems like there might be another lush dell or two just over the ridge. Needless to say, the timid people of Rose Creek dig their heels in and a few die cruel deaths before their church is incinerated.
One newly grieving widow (Hayley Bennett) bent on revenge enlists Washington’s bounty hunter to take on Bogue, who’s busily buying up an army to annihilate the town if his terms are not met. They quickly pick up Pratt’s wise-cracking, bourbon-guzzling gunman Faraday and onward they go, picking up another of the seven and moving on. This plays out with all the excitement of picking a sandlot baseball team. “Wanna come join us on a suicide mission?” “Sure thing.” Next.
The film gets draped around Washington. His Sam Chisolm is supposed to be something of an amalgam of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name and a corporate strategy wonk, but underneath the broad black hat — starkly reminiscent of Brynner’s — that’s pulled down so low we can’t see his eyes or soul, the fine thespian’s natural charisma gets muffled and muted. Fuqua also seems to be borrowing from both Sergio Leone and John Ford, almost arbitrarily so, and when James Horner’s Big Valley-esque score tamps in, the whole experience becomes a derivative patchwork of other films done before and better.
Hawke, who worked so well with Washington under Fuqua in Training Day (2001), gets one of the scant juicy roles as the rebel sharpshooter named Goodnight Robicheaux, who has a Southern gentlemanly air about him and PTSD from too much carnage. Pratt effectively recycles his amiable jokester schtick that worked so well in Guardians of the Galaxy though it feels a bit out of place here, and Sarsgaard is deliciously dastardly in the two-dimensional role of Bogue. Meanwhile Bennett soulfully delivers the heart of the helpless people caught in the crossfire. Other than that, it’s cookie-cutter killers.
To its credit, Seven moves quickly enough and it is visually stylistic and crisp, but the whole time I just couldn’t stop thinking about Ford, Leone, Kurosawa, and Sturges, or even Sam Peckinpah’s brilliant The Wild Bunch (1969) which visited similar territory with bitting nostalgia. Those men and their masterworks were magnificent. To tackle such an updating without fully loaded guns, is not a wise thing.