A band of misfits defend a frontier town from a rapacious mining titan.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt
Initial Review by Jon Kissel
It’s not like there isn’t plenty for Fuqua and Pizzolatto to work off of. The foundation for all this, Seven Samurai, has the unimpeachable reputation of a foundational cinematic block, an epic that is regularly ranked as one of the greatest films of all time. Sturges’ Magnificent Seven lacks that kind of weight, but it has survived decades as one of the better Westerns in the Hayes Code censorship era. While I can’t speak to Seven Samurai, I can absolutely say that Sturges’ film is about something, a conservative manifesto about the dignity of self-defense and the emptiness of a transient, mercenary lifestyle. It even gets close to putting a gray hat on its villain, a desperate bandit leader played by MMC favorite Eli Wallach.
Fifty-plus years later, all that nuance has been removed for a mass-market hodgepodge of gunplay and archetypes, a slog where motivations are baldly stated but still poorly communicated. This is a film about nothing. The closest I could come to a resonant theme is Bogue’s belief that because he is successful, he is justified, a key American myth in a genre known for American myth-making. That’s all a good start, but Pizzolatto, the man who wrote Rust Cohle’s long and windy monologues and metaphors, has Bogue relay his thinking in a simple bullet-pointed list. His introduction, oozing into the church and shooing the minister from the lectern, should’ve been the stage for a hefty monologue, but like everything else in Magnificent Seven, it’s an A-to-B straight line meant to move the plot thuddingly forward.
When Pizzolatto’s script isn’t eliding opportunities for meaning and depth, it’s taking half measures with everything else. The townspeople are all jittery whenever Denzel comes into town, but nothing comes of it or the fact of who he is. This is a man quite possibly enslaved a mere decade earlier in a country that fought a bloody and gruesome war over exactly that issue, but it goes completely undwelled upon. Do something more with it, or completely ignore it, but don’t ensure that the viewer is supposed to be mindful of how untrustworthy everyone is of him and then abandon the whole thing. Chris Pratt’s Faraday tosses off a line about nightmares but there is nothing in his dialogue or his performance to suggest any sense of regret or reflection. Just cut the line about nightmares and have him be an amoral 19th century bro with a penchant for magic tricks. There’s a training sequence that forgets to display any sense of progress, or why exactly townspeople characters who have talked about their hunting prowess can suddenly not hit a stationary dummy. Lastly, though I could go on and on, as a devotee of Deadwood, a show whose final season revolves around a murderous magnate not unlike Bogue, there’s the omnipresent reminder that Bogue/Deadwood’s Hearst is not just a man but an avatar of shareholders. While it might be satisfying to kill him, it doesn’t actually solve any problems. The land is still owned by Bogue’s company whether or not he’s alive to claim the profits. However, Deadwood’s David Milch thought about the story he was telling, while Pizzolatto did not.
While the script is plagued with holes and laziness, Fuqua is flubbing scene after scene. He forgets that film is a visual medium from the opening frames, showing two goons lugging a deposit box as obviously ADR’d lines opine about how heavy the gold is. Just show them straining to carry it and immediately make your film a tiny bit better. Denzel’s introduction is directly lifted from Django Unchained, and serves as a reminder of what a superior filmmaker Tarantino is. To go back to Training Day, I know that Fuqua can craft a tense scene, but here, he turns to quick draws so often that they lose all their tension by the fifteen-minute mark. He loses track of the larger scenes such that I’m rarely clear on what each sides’ numbers are, where they are in geographic space, and what to expect threat-wise, not that there is much of a threat from the stormtroopers and their terrible aim. Lastly, though again, there are plenty of negatives to mention, Fuqua keeps returning to a shot series where he finds each of the seven, to the point that it’s distracting and doesn’t even make sense. Dismiss this as nitpicky if you must, but after the battle, Denzel looks in a direction and there’s one of the Seven’s bodies. Fine, that one died on the ground. Then, he looks in another direction and the camera finds a body in an elevated position that Denzel cannot actually see from his location. When Fuqua obviously wants me to be feeling the loss, I am instead wondering how Denzel can see this body, robbing the moment of any weight because Fuqua can’t film a coherent sequence of shots. This seems like basic stuff from a filmmaker who I know can do better.
To return to the topic of remakes, the one marked difference in this version is the level of diversity in the cast, but like Pizzolatto’s script, the casting is a self-congratulatory bag of half measures. I mentioned the emptiness around Denzel’s race, and the other minorities are only there for a progressive pat on the back. Billy Rocks is defined by his weaponry and little else. Red Harvest may as well be an RPG character, because he just walks up to Denzel the quest-giver and accepts for the XP. Of the rest, Ethan Hawke’s Goodnight is given the soundest arc, but it is never in question that he’ll return after leaving the group. Vincent D’onofrio’s Jack Horne is at least making very big choices. Pratt is a gifted comic actor but he is sunk by his dialogue, and Denzel’s Sam Chisolm is on a standard revenge mission. As a group, the septet should at least have a fun rapport, but even that is nonexistent. Again, there’s the seed of former enemies (Mexican and Texan, North and South, settler and Indian) making peace, but it’s a detail given no more weight than the color of their costumes. Why is this film over two hours long and so thin at every level?
The only assets of The Magnificent Seven are the result of the actors doing what they can with the little they’re given. Denzel is incapable of being bad, and that holds true. His leadership at least carries this shambling mess into the realm of rooting interest into who lives and who dies. That’s the best thing I can say for it, that I was mildly curious as to who was going to bite it during the climactic battle. Then I found out, and felt nothing. This film has the gall to end on the line ‘It was magnificent’ while the town lies in ruins amongst piles of dead bodies (but very few horses, go figure, another punch pulled). None of the bittersweetness of Sturges’ film exists, just bloodthirsty satisfaction and manipulative good and evil. It’s boring, through and through, a mere exercise in paycheck cashing with nothing on its mind beyond what the proceeds will pay for. May Pratt name his new boat the We’re All Better Than This. D