Few films have ever oozed testosterone like the 1960 Western “The Magnificent Seven.” Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Charles Bronson powered a tale of Caucasian gunslingers hired by Mexican peasants to defend their village against a horde of bandits.
The tolerable new remake of that American standard (which itself was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s superior 1954 classic “The Seven Samurai”) stresses multiculturalism more than machismo. The payback drama trots out a respectable mix of action stars and character actors to compose the gunslinging (and knife-throwing and arrow-firing) septet. Yet it also increases the body count to a ludicrous level, more of a PG-13 version of “The Wild Bunch.”
The result is a long-winded movie that succumbs to overkill.
Denzel Washington portrays Sam Chisolm (the first of many awesome character names penned by Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto), a “duly sworn warrant officer from Wichita.” He dresses all in black, rides a black horse and is, well, black — which anachronistically doesn’t raise an eyebrow among the populace, even though the film takes place a decade after the Civil War.
During one of his outlaw-hunting forays, Chisolm is recruited by Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett, looking like a frontier Tori Amos) to dispatch the robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). The single-minded villain has taken over her mining town of Rose Creek, killed its menfolk and burned the church. (It’s likely that off-screen he kicked a dog and left the top off a peanut butter jar as well.)
So Chisolm gathers a group of lethal outsiders to challenge the dozens (hundreds?) of hired guns on Bogue’s payroll. His posse includes a canny gambler with “an affinity for shiny things” named Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), Confederate sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his blade-wielding enforcer Billy Rocks (Byung-Hun Lee). They also inadvertently acquire useful stragglers such as Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), who is one of Chisolm’s bounty targets, painted Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) and nutjob mountain man Jack Horne (nutjob method actor Vincent D’Onofrio).
The seven attempt to whip the homesteaders into a militia, which proves taxing and leads them to second-guess the mission. What can they all hope to gain from this suicidal stand?
“I seek righteousness — as should we all,” Emma clarifies. “But I’ll settle for revenge.”
The 1960 original is more fondly remembered for steely star power and a rousing score than its actual execution. Director John Sturges’ version plays more stiff and meandering than you might remember. Yet Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) hardly tightens the reins on his adaptation, which stretches 90 minutes of entertainment across a 132-minute frame. Too bad the gang didn’t recruit an eighth member who was an expert at editing.
The best moments involve Hawke’s bayou-born Robicheaux, whose exploits at Antietam left him with full-on PTSD. Also welcome is Pratt’s card-sharp rogue. As he did in “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Jurassic World,” the charming star understands how to put a humanizing spin on a formidable action hero.
Even the training montages — which typically echo episodes of “The A-Team” in vehicles such as this — are presented with a deft comedic touch by Fuqua, often benefiting from Pratt’s ease with a punch line. Less funny, however, are the key combat scenes. What starts promisingly with a tense face-off as Chisolm’s men arrive to retake the town devolves into an endless orgy of anonymous scoundrels being slaughtered.
Talk about desensitizing the audience to violence.
Bogue’s goons might as well be the faceless robot armies or alien armadas usually encountered in Marvel blockbusters, thus allowing the superheroes to dispatch wave after wave without enduring any moral quandary. (Even Hawke’s Robicheaux ditches his temporary bout with a conscience to climb right back up his sniper perch.)
Fuqua depicts a world where any bad guy can be bloodlessly slain with a lone six-shooter, while the good guys graphically sustain bullet after bullet before succumbing via a lingering, valiant death scene.
“The Magnificent Seven” progressively transforms Rose Creek into a survivalist fantasy land. All except for the part where the minorities are the good guys.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
‘The Magnificent Seven’
How to go West
Here’s how the cast and crew went back to the fictional 1879 town of Rose Creek:
▪ Crews built an entire town — streets, buildings and interiors — an hour outside Baton Rouge, La., where filmmaking tax incentives are plentiful. The gorgeous panoramas were shot all over New Mexico.
▪ Before filming began, the actors “did horse training, gun training, learning how to twirl and spin the guns,” director Antoine Fuqua said in a studio statement. Their quick-draw teacher was Thell Reed, who toured with Gene Autry’s Wild West show and later lent his expertise behind the scenes of “Gunsmoke” and loads of Westerns.
▪ The actors spent months trying to get used to their cowboy boots. “Them boots is serious,” star Denzel Washington told the New York Times. “I found a couple of pairs that were biting — I’m like, OK, these aren’t going to work.”
Sharon Hoffmann, firstname.lastname@example.org