"The Magnificent Seven," directed by Antoine Fuqua, is something special: a remake of a remake. Remakes are common enough, and they're almost always a diminishment of the original film. This film, a remake of the 1960 film of the same name, which was a remake of Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece, "Seven Samurai" (1954), is the least successful of the three. It's an antiseptic film that makes a farce out of diversity.
The film opens in the late 19th century as robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) interrupts a church service in a small mining town called Rose Creek. The locals are meeting to propose ways to stop Bogue, who has taken over the town and its mine and demands that locals pay him exorbitant fees to regain access to their land. There's no law to stop Bogue — he owns the sheriff, and the deputies constitute a small army of armed men who do his bidding. Bogue senses the beginnings of an insurrection, so he slaughters many of the townspeople and set the church on fire. His thugs force the locals to leave their dead in the street and prevent them from even putting out the fire in the church. It's meant to teach them a lesson.
Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), whose brother was killed by the deputies, goes to a nearby town with as much money as the people of Rose Creek can put together to hire someone to fight Bogue. She finds Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), a bounty hunter who leaves a trail of death and destruction in his wake. Chisolm isn't interested, until Cullen mentions Bogue's name. The reason for his familiarity isn't initially explained, but it's clear that Chisolm knows Bogue.
Chisolm goes through the motions of the requisite recruiting scenes. First, there's Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), a gambler who inspires men to shoot at him. Then he finds Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), a sharpshooter, and Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), who is as skilled with a knife as with a gun. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo plays Vasquez (just Vasquez, no last name) a Mexican outlaw. The group is rounded out by Jack Horne (Vincent D'Onofrio) a tracker and killer of Native Americans, and Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), a Comanche warrior. The seven begin to prepare the town, booby-trapping it and teaching the townspeople how to use firearms.
"The Magnificent Seven" is undeniably a diverse film, with actors of ethnicities that are rarely represented on screening in depictions of the Old West. But it is diversity as farce, rather than realism. Contrary to popular opinion, there were African–American cowboys. However, they endured plenty of discrimination and had a far different experience out West compared to Caucasians. The West of The Magnificent Seven is a fantasy land where no one seems to care about Chisolm's race, despite the fact that many of them would be veterans of the Civil War who fought for the Confederacy. Even Robicheaux is a former Confederate. The treatment of Billy Rocks is also difficult to believe. He's played by a South Korean actor, although presumably he is meant to be a Chinese man. Chinese workers immigrated to the U.S. in large numbers in the late 19th century and helped to mine gold and build railroads. They were treated as subhumans by many employers and were victims of racist caricatures and violence. But Billy Rocks also seems to exist in a universe where no one has any prejudice towards Chinese people. The only time that the film alludes to racism is when members of the group mention how Jack Horne is famous for scalping Native Americans. Somehow, he and Red Harvest strike up a friendship even though Horne has likely killed scores of people from Red Harvest's tribe. The film's attempt to rob these characters of their histories is an offensive act of intentional amnesia.
Beyond its unfortunate treatment of minorities, "The Magnificent Seven" is often simply unintelligible in its action sequences. The cutting is so quick that it's not always clear who is being shot and whether they are friend or foe. The dust and smoke from the battle obscure identities. It's difficult to even grasp the geography of the town.
Hundreds of people are killed in the film, but unlike revisionist Westerns such as "The Wild Bunch" (1969), the violence of "The Magnificent Seven" is barely felt. In "The Wild Bunch" and many Westerns that followed, people didn't just die quick, bloodless deaths. Death was a painful, drawn-out process — the audience was supposed to experience the pain of being shot and feeling your blood slowly drain out. But there's almost no blood at all in the current film. We see splotches of red on the clothes of the characters who are shot, but it's only a hint of the violence they have actually experienced. We don't actually understand their pain because director Antoine Fuqua doesn't seem interested in showing it.
If there's one thing that this current version of "The Magnificent Seven" has in common with the 1960 film, it's this kind of antiseptic death and violence. But the older film, while not a great work of art, was at least better paced. It gave the audience some time to meet the gunslingers, even if they were mostly just caricatures. That film also gave the battle sequences some room to breathe. It's slow by modern standards, but there's never any confusion as to what's happening and who is being shot. There's an even great difference between either of those films and the original, Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai." Kurosawa actually used slow motion in some of his action sequences, which was quite rare at the time. He focused on the ballet precision and grace of his warriors. In contrast, Fuqua seems like he wants to hide his actors by cutting so quickly.
Maybe the biggest problem with "The Magnificent Seven" is that there was never any reason for it to be made. The remake from 1960 is not a great film by any measure and loses much of the charm and insight of "Seven Samurai." A photocopy of a picture loses some of the originals quality; this new version of "The Magnificent Seven" is a copy of copy. There's very little left of what made the original so special.
Watch the trailer below:
Reach Staff Reporter Brian Marks here.