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By now, the tale is as dusty as the trail the heroes ride. An oppressed people, powerless to stop a corrupt and malicious evil-doer–typically a callous lawman, a heartless government leader, or greedy corporate baron–seek the aid of a mysterious stranger or strangers to win back what’s rightfully theirs. It’s the very backbone of the Western genre and has been done so often it’s the movies that don’t use it that now stand out. Of course to fault The Magnificent Seven for falling victim to this trope would mean missing the point since it was Akira Kurosawa‘s seminal avenge film Seven Samurai (1954) that not only inspired the source material for this and its original, but became the standard for countless Western films that followed. But that doesn’t make it feel any more fresh, despite a perfect cast and a sharp script. The Magnificent Seven is a good time but one you’ll forget not long after it’s over.
In order for any film of this nature to work, everything depends on the villain. Without a convincing, authentic bad guy for the hero to face, there’s little investment in the story, and one thing is for sure, The Magnificent Seven does villainy right. Played by a dour, scrawny Peter Sarsgaard, the character of Bartholomew Bogue, a wealthy and corrupt corporate land owner looking to industrialize the small town of Rose Creek, absolutely nails the part. In the film’s rather bleak and dark opening, he harangues the townspeople in their own church, forcing them to take his measly financially offers before burning the church down and murdering a few of the rebellious protesting menfolk. The incident is shocking and grips the town in fear. It’s desperate times for these God-fearing souls, but one of them, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), the wife of one of the slaughtered, isn’t having it and rides into the next town in search of a gunslinger.
Enter Bartholomew’s opposite, the good-hearted bounty hunter, Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), a shadowy figure with remarkable shooting skills and a thirst for justice. But when he hears of the odds against him, he initially declines, though the name Bartholomew Bogue changes his mind. Yet he won’t go it alone and begins to recruit riders to join his effort, six of course, including Irishman Faraday (Chris Pratt), legendary gunfighter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), his sidekick and knife-throwing expert Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), former criminal Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Native American Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), and the last of the bunch, skilled tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio). The magnificent seven.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua, who directed Washington to an Academy Award in 2001’s Training Day, (which also featured Hawke), much of the story focuses on the gathering and journey of these characters, itself a proud tradition in this genre. For the most part, these are some entertaining moments, led by Pratt who is his usual wise-cracking self, but also like usual, so darned good at it, you can’t help but be won over, even if it’s pretty standard stuff. Washington is also decidedly good, his introduction played out with expected mysticism and mysteriousness and he and Hawke share a few powerfully good scenes together, reminding us of how much better it might have been if it were more about the complexities of the characters rather than the polish of the appearance.
The best parts of the movie are the fact it’s a Western at all, with the genre a hard one to do right it seems, and admittedly, Washington, who like a few other aging Hollywood men taken to stories of gun-toting violence, looks great atop a horse and it’s easy to get behind him and his men. Indeed, the strength of the camaraderie and humor mixed with action serves the movie well and it might just be enough to make this just what you’re looking for.
But there is a genericness to it all, and it lacks the sweeping grand feel of a classic Western despite a few good visuals. The predictable plot strips most of the tension away, and much of the dialogue feels like quotes for a trailer than anything with impact on the story. Few moments of drama are truly earned. That said, there’s plenty of charisma at hand, and it’s fun to see these famous faces in cowboy garb. Fans of Pratt and Hawke won’t be disappointed, with Hawke especially becoming more and more a great character actor of importance. There’s a lot to enjoy but the missed opportunity to make this a defining film set this back.
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writers: Akira Kurosawa (based on the screenplay by), Richard Wenk
Stars: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Vincent D'Onofrio, Peter Sarsgaard, Haley Bennett
Genre: Western, Action