“They fought like seven hundred”. It’s possibly one of the most famous taglines in film history, and when you look at the legacy of the original it’s easy to understand why. John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960) was one of the first great cinematic throw-downs, the story of a ragtag band of gunslingers hired to defend a little Mexican village from bandits who vastly outnumbered them. Starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and Eli Wallach among others, it was ‘The Avengers’ of its time, and to this day its impact lingers at the movies with every climax featuring heroes battling against hoards of enemies.
2016’s The Magnificent Seven, directed by Antoine Fuqua, comes riding into a very different world from 1960. Try to make a film about trigger-happy Southerners taking on marauding Mexicans and you’ll quickly find yourself in Trumpsville. The spectacle that put the original on the map is now beyond oversaturated in cinema, and the kids have swapped their cowboy hats for capes. This isn’t so much a remake that’s got its work cut out for it, much like the Seven themselves, as it is a case of too little, too late, despite clear efforts to accomplish something in its own right.
Denzel Washington heads up the admirably star-studded cast as bounty hunter Sam Chisolm, hired by Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) to liberate her town from the abuses of corrupt industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), and to his credit the comparisons to Jamie Foxx’s Django (2012) are few and far between…but he’s no Yul Brynner. Joining his crusade, the quick-fingered Josh Farraday (Chris Pratt), not much of a departure from Pratt’s amiable rogue routine but solid nonetheless, as well as Ethan Hawke’s ex-Confederate sharpshooter and his assassin comrade (Byung-Hun Lee, by far the film’s coolest customer). Vincent D’Onofrio, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Martin Sensmeier make up the rest of the numbers as tracker Jack Horn, outlaw Vasquez, and Comanche warrior Red Harvest respectively. As ensemble casts go, it’s certainly leaning towards the magnificent end of the spectrum, but the film simply doesn’t afford its core characters the space to really flesh themselves out for the audience. Ethan Hawke is however a noteworthy exception, and he makes full use of it to provide the audience with the most human character the film has to offer, even if his story arc comes with little-to-no surprises. D’Onofrio also makes his character a standout where he can, continuing the ascent of his profile over the past couple of years. Supporting actors play their parts very much as the archetypes that they are, from the grieving widow to the sombre priest, except for Peter Sarsgaard’s villain who is less Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood and more Blazing Saddles’ nefarious District Attorney. There’s a difference between a good old-fashioned villain, and panto. This verges on the latter.
Indeed, there’s more than a little about Fuqua’s feature that evokes the Mel Brooks classic pastiche, just without the comedic angle. From the town of Rose Creek set upon by Bogue’s thugs to even D’Onofrio’s tracker begging God’s forgiveness as he pummels his enemies, it would be a hoot if it wasn’t all being done so seriously! Classic western gunslingers always came out on top, but they did so with a few scrapes and bruises as well as a good few shots missed. Here, the Seven are Terminators. Every shot fired, a KO. Every shot received, a minor setback (at times things get very ‘tis but a scratch’-like). There simply isn’t any sense of palpable danger, to the Seven, to the townsfolk, and so what excitement there is to be had is scatter-gunned across fleeting moments and the odd bit of clever thinking on any given character’s part.
There’s a certain appropriateness to label The Magnificent Seven as ‘video game filmmaking’, but not quite for the reasons that term is usually prescribed. The issue isn’t an excess of mindless action, or the fact that in effect the Seven are pitted against countless, faceless ‘drones’. The action is, for the most part, well-choreographed, the audience maintains a fair amount of comprehension as to what’s happening where, and even the odd fatality has a certain ‘pop’ to it. The issue, rather, is just how easily everything feels handed to our heroes, like playing a new game with familiar mechanics on the easiest setting. It’s fun, to be sure, but fun that’s lacking by design. Fun without challenge, and therefore without much flavour for audiences to carry off into the sunset.