Overview: Seven outlaws stand in protection of a town under siege. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Columbia Pictures; 2016; Rated PG-13; 133 minutes.
A New Story Told with an Old Story: From the right angle, Peter Sasrsgard looks like the devil anyway. But as Bartholomew Bogue, the soulless land-developing industrialist who aims to steal Rose Creek out from under the townspeople’s feet by any means possible, he feels like an a more specifically recognizable devil. For the better part of The Magnificent Seven, the script from True Detective writer Nick Pizzolotta and Richard Wenk holds Bogue on a narrative leash. He walks slowly and methodically through the crowds of townspeople offering insulting deal conditions and barely vague threats. Before the final showdown, Bogue exhibits only two displays of harsh villainy– he guns down a good man in the street (in a film where, eventually, we see so many people gunned down, it’s hard to keep score of the good and the bad) and he leads the way with torches to set fire to Rose Creek’s church. And yet, he still feels disproportionately wicked, for at least two reasons.
The first comes through his occupation and ambition in The Magnificent Seven. With a down tilted head, lowered brow, and a thudding monosyllable for a last name, Bogue’s bad guy status is defined by a distinct and startlingly modern business approach. He even gives a speech about the inevitability and Christian preference of capitalism that feels almost anachronistic within the 1879 framework of the film. Largely, many will feel that Bogue is bad because many of us are still fighting that guy today.
The Magnificent Parts: The other reason we know Bogue to be bad in The Magnificent Seven is our allegiance to his adversaries. Director Antoine Fuqua teams once again with Denzel Washington (as Chisolm, the founding member and assumed leader of the seven) and the two prove themselves beyond comparison to any other working director/actor partnership in terms of establishing character righteousness in whatever form is required by the story. Washington always seems to have an intuitive sense of how much to give and when, as defined by his character’s story. Where Training Day saw Denzel in hyper-control of an explosive masculine temperament and The Equalizer offered a more reserved and certain saves-the-day superhero, The Magnificent Seven‘s Chisolm is a sage leader of men who presides over more combat than he participates in. Like Bogue, Chisolm is held on a narrative leash until the final act, where all of our earned intrigue is rewarded by a climax in which Denzel does Denzel. In this exchange, we come to understand Chisolm’s acceptance of the task and, by proxy, we get a specific measure of Bogue’s evil roots.
But even beyond its A-list star, The Magnificent Seven‘s rag tag crew are cheerable from top to bottom, in no small part because Fuqua and his writers have managed to diversify a cast of heroes underneath a milestone title within the genre least likely to permit such a customization. There exist few if any major Western films in which over half the heroes are non-white, but the posse in Fuqua’s reboot includes a Comanche warrior (Martin Sensmeier), a black bounty hunter (Washington), an East Asian assassin (Byung-hun Lee), and a Mexican outlaw (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) (not to mention, a sniper with an anxiety disorder). Not only does this atypically progressive collective never feel dishonest or forced, it serves as a platform for the earlier suggested analysis of the disenfranchised taking on the conscienceless-ness of dehumanizing capitalism. Moreover, this mixture of backgrounds also enlivens the film’s major action sets. Where traditional Westerns tend to culminate with a ho-hum shootout, The Magnificent Seven affords itself a gleeful mix of framed fighting styles, from Jack Horne’s (Vincent D’Onofrio) WWE-style haymakers and body slams to Billy Rock’s (Lee) quick-as-lightning knife attacks, the action sequences allow more than enough amplification from the expectation of dynamites and bullets.
So Far, So Good: There are, of course, missteps throughout The Magnificent Seven. Enough to ensure that many film and Western purists will have a full checklist of reasons for why this attempt at an already twice-beloved classic does a disservice to John Sturges’ 1960 original or Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (upon which Sturges’ film was based). In a general sense, Fuqua was never the director to capture the narrative grace or humanity in those films. His style is anything but subtle and patient (I mean, this is a director who puts his name in the title card and the opening credits, in case we forget in three minutes). As such, there are times when this film feels made by someone who very much wanted to make a Western for superficial reasons.
Overall: So, while the score from the late James Horner and Simon Franglen feels like drive-through serving of sweet, sweet nostalgia, and while it seems Chris Pratt’s self-assured goofiness has finally found itself stepping one boot over the line with his turn as gambler Josh Farraday (he still has his moments), that same pension for cheesy cinema-informed cinema also gives us a traditional hero shot of Denzel Washington in a cowboy hat, standing in perfect center of perfectly symmetrical buildings with a lazy sunset behind him. And that’s too invaluable to be considered artless, making The Magnificent Seven more than worthwhile.
Featured Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Columbia Pictures