Magnificent may be overselling it, but The Mildly Diverting Seven doesn’t look so good on a poster. Moreover, Antoine Fuqua’s remake of John Sturges’s Hollywood classic (itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) can’t and shouldn’t obscure its origins. It lives and dies by being a Magnificent Seven of the now, and this helps and harms the final product.
On the positive side, there’s Denzel Washington looking, to put it in today’s terms, cool AF riding a horse. And getting off the horse, walking next to the horse, quick-drawing on bad guys and rescuing a town of helpless innocents. There are a lot of closeups of belt buckles in this movie and few will complain.
An African American director casting one of the greatest African American movie stars as a “classic” western hero, just as President Obama prepares to ride off into the sunset (while mainstream cinema struggles to catch up with the racial diversity of the US) is a recipe for bold imagery. Washington, when he’s given time to sink his teeth into it, is extraordinary as Sam Chisolm, a bounty hunter who agrees to pleas from desperate Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett, forever in a low-cut shirt) to rescue her humble hamlet from the evil mining company run by brutal Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard).
The problem is that the runup to the final showdown, despite occasional one-line zingers from Washington, or “oh, that’s evil” closeups of Sarsgaard’s sleepy eyes, includes a great deal of waiting around for anything to happen. There’s a fine line between a slowburn and dull, and this Magnificent Seven frequently finds itself on the wrong side.
Despite the laggy patches, there’s not much beyond some initial generic killing to help you empathise with the beleaguered town. Here’s where being a remake is a double-edged sword. Having seen the other versions, I could project my memories on to the new faces, even if they had no names and nothing to say. Newcomers may need help girding their interests.
Still, Chris Pratt is rakishly charming in the slot filled by Steve McQueen in the 1960 film, and may just have more dialogue than Washington’s team leader. The one-to-one comparisons drift a bit as you move further down the line. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo is a wanted Mexican outlaw, Ethan Hawke is a war veteran and sharpshooter from Cajun country with a secret, and his pal (Korean actor Byung-hun Lee) is a Chinese expert with blades. All join in for the town’s collected dough, though Chisolm may be putting his life on the line for other reasons. Martin Sensmeier plays a Comanche warrior who comes along because Washington eats a raw animal liver, and Vincent D’Onofrio’s grey-haired, Bible-quoting kook adds comic relief. The multiculturalism of the unlikely allies is a source of jokes – except for Denzel Washington’s blackness, which is never mentioned. This absence of acknowledgment, so soon after the civil war, shows there’s just enough subtext going on in this film.
The final battle really does go on forever, and in a less inventive way than in the last Fuqua-Washington collaboration, The Equalizer. (That movie was a stinker, but the Home Depot battle zone in the last reel at least had some oomph.) Fuqua is also unclear whether he wants audiences taking this material seriously, or as good-natured exploitation. One moment you have Hawke and Washington getting real about post traumatic stress disorder, the next Sensmeier squares off for a one-on-one fight against the other team’s American Indian. It’s like something out of GI Joe. Individually, both scenes work well enough to make the movie something of a success, but it all adds up to an odd number.
• The Magnificent Seven is released in the US and UK on 23 September
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