The core story of The Magnificent Seven, of a group of gunslingers who achieve glory by protecting meek villagers from a siege, is so elemental that it’s strange to call Antoine Fuqua’s latest film a remake of either John Sturges’s 1960 western of the same name or Akira Kurosawa’s original Seven Samurai. Nonetheless, the film, co-written by novelist and True Detective creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto, adds nothing of particular value to the source material, making for another disposable adaptation of a preexisting property in a year littered with forgettable blockbusters.
The crucial difference between this film and its predecessors is the nature of the villains. Typically they’ve been a posse of anonymous, lowly bandits with no clear hierarchy. Here, however, the raiders are organized under the banner of wealthy, wannabe tycoon Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who laments how hard he has to work to seize land in comparison to moneyed elite like the Rockefellers. “This country has long equated democracy with capitalism, capitalism with God,” he tells the residents of the small mining town of Rose Creek, marking him not as a rogue element, but an inevitability of the bureaucratic takeover of the West. Sarsgaard long ago honed the drawled disdain that informs Bogue’s every word, and the businessman speaks as if he knows talk is money and wants to spend as little as possible.
Another notable deviation from prior versions of the story is the diversity of the film’s main cast. Denzel Washington heads up the seven cowboys as bounty hunter Sam Chisholm, and the actor settles into the same weary, moral badass that he played in Fuqua’s The Equalizer. Washington, in his first western, fits right into this genre’s parameters, with his measured, lightly sardonic speech patterns and his loping, Gary Cooper-esque gait. Chisholm’s actions are so deliberate that he doesn’t even dump the spent casings out of his revolver, instead swiftly ejecting each one by one as he cycles through his gun’s chambers. Also among the seven are Korean close-quarters combat expert Billy Rocks (Lee Byung-hun), Mexican gunfighter Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), an exiled Comanche. These four push back at the casual racism of their white comrades, albeit usually in scenes of light comedy around campfires and dinner tables.
If the cast members distinguish themselves from each other by ethnicity, they also bring different fighting styles to the film’s major skirmishes. Ex-Confederate Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), for example, is a sniper, and his patient precision is filmed in relatively sedate shots. Billy, meanwhile, ducks and weaves among foes, slicing and sometimes throwing his knives so fast that Bogue’s dimwitted henchmen barely have time to react. Fellow member Josh Farraday (Chris Pratt) is an expert quickdraw who never seems to miss a pistol shot, while the gigantic Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio) is a seemingly invulnerable and unstoppable force, brutally dispatching foes with his bare hands when he doesn’t have any other weapons at his disposal.
Bolstering the group’s fighting prowess is the shrewd placement of dynamited booby traps around Rose Creek, which yields an explosive climax that’s so entertaining in its organized chaos that only in retrospect does one wonder why, exactly, the townspeople would sign off on a plan to save their home by reducing half of it to flaming wood chips. Nonetheless, there’s a perfunctory nature to so much of the filmmaking; Fuqua was once known, by supporters and detractors, for his hyper-stylized direction, but he has by now settled into a largely anonymous filmmaker. The huge explosions and pandemonium of the final act recall less Kurosawa than Takashi Miike, whose far superior 13 Assassins similarly added ostentatious action spectacle to the narrative concept. Once upon a time, Fuqua might have been able to offer some kind of kinetic approximation of the energy of that film, but as passably entertaining as The Magnificent Seven is, it never surrenders to the abandon of its action, and as such never feels like it shifts out of first gear.