Film: The Magnificent Seven
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Somewhere in the cavernous hubbub of the Web, I read that 61% of viewers polled, who walked up to their local movie ticket vestibule this week, opened wide their wallets, and requested one for The Magnificent Seven, did so on account of Denzel Washington. I imagine the other 39%, give or take, are aware that the film is a remake. How many know it is a remake of a remake?
Akira Kurosawa’s genuinely magnificent Seven Samurai, which has in many ways defined not only the samurai genre but the action film since its 1954 premiere, was transplanted to Mexican soil for 1960’s The Magnificent Seven, directed by John Sturges and featuring a fluorescent constellation of in-demand stars. Sturges’s version is mildly exciting, less a classic film than a classic example of the rapport between the samurai movie and the Western. Its best scenes are carried by Eli Wallach as the rapacious archvillain and by Elmer Bernstein’s timeless score. Its major misstep lies in truncating the scope of Kurosawa’s two-hundred-minute epic by more than an hour, resulting in something more along the lines of the Magnificent Three and their four friends who don’t say or do much. Excluding the end credits, this new retread is virtually identical in duration, although the same amount of time is spent more creatively here. The script by Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk is clever and textured, sort of in the manner of a greater James Bond flick. The director and editor then irreparably purée this material until all nutritional value has been expunged.
All three Seven films portray a mighty alliance of killers, mostly strangers to each other, who share a chapter of valor in their wayward and generally extralegal lives by defending a humble rural hamlet from a Goliathine horde of bandits. (In the new version, these are called “capitalists.”) Seven Samurai weaved many rich subplots into this story, without ever detracting from the colossal momentum of the main conflict. Like its nearest predecessor, Antoine Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven seems to exist mostly to provide an Old West counterpart to the celebrity sardine-canning of Ocean’s Eleven—but the space shared between the titular septet and their nefarious foe (Peter Sarsgaard, ably filling Wallach’s boots) is more evenly allocated than it was in 1960. Vincent D’Onofrio is especially fascinating as a giant squeak-toy with a fondness for hatchets.
Unlike the Sturges picture, Fuqua’s Seven forgets or ignores what Kurosawa was trying to say about lone wolves and common folk. It decides that the story is more about the gunslingers than about the farmers they are hired to train and protect, disposing completely of a key theme in both generations previous. It occurred to me that this might be the movie’s undoing, but I quickly reconsidered. There are interesting and exciting things happening here, and the actors—all eight and then some—clearly keep apace. If only the movie would let me watch them.
In scenes like the prologue, which has Sarsgaard’s vile Bartholomew Bogue terrorizing the people of Rose Creek and putting a short end to guest star Matt Bomer, that we are able to understand the action at all is a wonder—or a grace of the sound editing, anyway. The film bounces nervously from shot to shot, scooping up new vantages like they’re out of print, almost never lingering long enough to leave a sizeable impact. I so wanted to be entertained by what was happening, but after an hour of what seemed like watching it all from the perspective of a one-eyed Tasmanian devil with ADD, I was too exhausted to care anymore.
I sat down to The Magnificent Seven expecting a bad movie. What I saw was a good movie that had been dropped through a paper shredder and pasted back together by a blind crackhead. In a Dark Age of franchise hyper-brining, it is a (by comparison) inventive and (purely, sheerly by comparison) worthwhile remake. It is also, sadly, a victim of Hollywood’s cheapest visual standards.