Antoine Fuqua is about to give audiences the number seven.
What’s a “number seven,” you might inquire?
Well the good guys? They come a ridin’ in to town. A-whompin’ and a-whumpin’ every living baddie, as it were, but sparing the women and the children, of course. And it gets better. Denzel Washington melees with villains from his horse, whipping pistol shots on all sides. Chris Pratt’s just smiling, hiding behind card tricks and bottles, ready to throw down at a moment’s notice. Explosions. Arrow snipers. Knife skills that would make a French chef cower. A multi-national crew of cowboys taking out the manure. The familiar Western stuff, but with a modern twist. And who doesn’t like a little zest in their whiskey? That’s the number seven, alright. The Magnificent Seven, as it was, and still is.
Now, The Magnificent Seven never reaches the heights of John Sturges’ original, let alone Kurosawa’s classic, but it doesn’t necessarily need to. Instead it arrives with some style and matinee theatrics straight out of the Wild West. Its sepia-tinted bones are weathered, but spit-shined real nice, sporting an all-star cast and a gold mine of studio production value.
The story and the formula are vintage. The assemblage of a group to do something righteous. Scooby-Doo did it. The A-Team did it. Two sets of Ghostbusters did it. Even the Suicide Squad just did it. And The Magnificent Seven has now certainly done it. But what brings them together this time isn’t Eli Wallach pretending to be a Mexican bandit, but instead the evils of greedy landowners. Mining magnate Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, sporting a deliciously villainous lowered brow) preys upon the small town of Rose Creek. He kicks the locals out, burns down their church, shoots people. A nasty guy all around.
Time to call in the cavalry. Enter bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Washington, dressed in all black and a mean pair of mutton chops). Sam’s recruited by the town to form a posse, and stop the nefarious Bogue. He assembles a killer crew. There’s Josh Faraday (Pratt, set free from the faux stoicism of Jurassic World), a drunken lug with a fast mouth and faster gunplay. There’s the former confederate sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke and a gold tooth) and his blade-wielding partner Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee). Vincent D’onofrio goes all mountain man as the woolly Jack Horn. Newcomer Martin Sensmeier is the team’s Native American archer Red Harvest. And Manuel Garcia-Rulfo plays Vasquez, a Mexican outlaw and reliable hired hand. Tensions rise and fall, but the characterizations are strong. The film deals in stereotypes, but with a certain amount of valor given the genre’s history. It’s hard to tell whether it’s progressive for a cowboy film to unite outlaws across races, or regressive to rely on “old time” tropes for the sake of shorthand. Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto’s screenplay trades on the cultural differences, but the banter among hoodlums works – it’s chummy and acknowledging, rather than derisive.
Now why take up precious review space listing off the Seven? For one, anyone remotely familiar with Westerns can predict how this film plays out, and that’s just as well. The Seven rallies the town. Bart comes back mad. You knew this. But the camaraderie is important because they’re a magnificent crew indeed, and the film’s strongest attribute. Pratt’s exuberance is a draw, with a young buck ego that suits him better than an old boot. And Washington’s raw-yet-graceful demeanor will lead audiences to wonder why he hasn’t put on a 10-gallon hat sooner. He’s mysterious, confident, and almost elegant when he’s in action; he looks like one of the great cowboys. Hawke takes the time to actually convey PTSD in a soldier. D’onofrio is enigmatic. Sensmeier, uses his deep gaze to intimidate and elicit goosebumps. Everyone has a moment to shine. The “Seven” just clicks. And that’s what makes the requisite showdowns – preliminary and final – so utterly satisfying.
Fuqua dabbles in Ford, Leone, and even a little Jodorowsky (you’ll see it), but draped in the grit and tan-teal hues of modern action filmmaking. And that’s just dandy. The shootouts aren’t chaotic, because shots look they were actually crafted, with clear and deliberate focus. The steep tradition of lensing plains, or cowboys by the fire, are digitally enhanced to bring out a high-contrast warmth. New and old, uniting to take on the classically crooked.
But that mediation between eras is where the film struggles most, conceptually. This Seven exists in a tonally strange place, and takes some time to break itself in. There isn’t much in the way of cussin’ (Pratt’s “god dangit” feels so Alan Ladd), but there are brothels. People are shot brazenly, left with arrows inside them, and cut up something nasty, but blood is nominal and pain treated as something a cowboy can clamp down and fight through. Racial epithets are scrubbed and downplayed because apparently nobody ever said something nasty regarding an ethnic minority in 1879. The film’s most cross-eyed aspect is this contradiction, and how it negotiates it. The style often suggests something harsher, but the plotting, attitudes, and behaviors of the characters casually brush with ugly history in order to focus on the action at hand. And yet, that action helps push these issues into the background.
The Magnificent Seven arrives after the Walter Mirisch MGM days of visible backlot shenanigans, in a post-Deadwood moment of anguished genre revisionism. David Milch, in an EPK for Deadwood, once decried the studio Westerns of yesteryear as horseshit given the brutality of the pioneer era. But that’s not absolute. Fuqua seems to have found a happy middle ground in his $100 million dollar PG-13 exercise, with just enough salt and sour to seem authentic, leaving the film a blast by its end.
Fuqua isn’t interested in pushing the genre forward so much as respecting and updating the model accordingly. The director focuses on establishing his gang of gunslingers sturdily enough that the action becomes easy to engage with, and even get excited about. And while Fuqua has (with respect) long been a “cool shot” kind of music video director, the script this time is so timeless, and the characters so game, that his approach serves only to energize staid tropes. Take the old scene, with the cowboy in the saloon sizing up five, six, hell a hundred baddies, getting ready to act. It’s here, and very early on. Washington comes in looking for a man looking like Johnny Cash. He’s got the confidence, though the room is seedy. Pratt, on the other side of the bar, looks on with glee. He knows what’s up. And in the blink of an eye:
Denzel gets his man.
A hat flies off a stooge.
Denzel scares the hell out of the boozehounds and they scatter.
This could be a scene from hundreds of horse operas, but Fuqua’s does it with flair, enthusiasm, and an assured Washington calling the shots. There’s tension. Stakes. A sense of people, place, and drama. It’s a great scene, an exciting scene, one of many. And perhaps why folks loved Westerns in the first place, and why this Magnificent Seven is such a good ‘ol time.