At the movies: ‘The Magnificent Seven’
Special to Lake Tahoe Action
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN
* *1/2 (B-)
Directed By Antoine Fuqua
Starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Haley Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard, Luke Grimes, Matt Bomer, Byung-hun Lee
Sony, Rated PG-13, Western, 132 minutes
In 1960, John Sturges remade a 1954 Japanese mournful beauty, “The Seven Samurai,” as “The Magnificent Seven.” That remake was made noteworthy by several soon-to-be stars (Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn), signing on to follow silken-voiced, smooth-pated Yul Brynner on an impossible mission to save a Mexican village from a gang of well-armed bandits. The film worshiped the redemptive quality of heroic machismo while providing each gunslinger his moment in the cinematic sun.
Similarly, director Antoine Fuqua’s re-re-make, aims to do no more than the same, despite offering a potentially interesting major twist — casting Denzel Washington as the Seven’s leader, Sam Chisolm. Fuqua combines two of his longtime favorites, Westerns and Washington, the latter of whom stars in three of the director’s films. In Fuqua’s recent “Equalizer,” Washington stepped into another role formerly played by a white male. There as well as here, Washington’s character becomes the dark-skinned savior or executioner to a passel of light-skinned folks.
Because no racially-primed life experiences are referenced in either role, Fuqua invites us to be colorblind. In theory, that works, but in the context of the Seven’s late 19th century setting, following the Civil War and recent abolition of slavery, it’s an interesting circumstance left unaddressed within the dialog. A bounty hunter certified in no less than seven states, Chisolm is clearly sharp with a gun; and more importantly, he’s always the smartest guy in the room.
After a greedy gold baron (a petulant Peter Sarsgaard) demonstrates his willingness to massacre Rose Creek’s citizens in order to steal their potentially gold-laden farms, townie and newly widowed Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) decides to hire gunmen as defenders. To that end, Emma rides into a nearby town where she meets Chisolm, and tosses the bounty hunter a bag of money that contains “everything we have.” Washington sprinkles the implications in his reply like magic dust, “I’ve been offered big money before, but no body’s ever offered me everything.”
While Fuqua declines to comment on Chisolm’s race, he pays close attention to Emma’s gender. Her revealing tops and form fitting outfits make her difficult to miss amidst the sea of men.
To help him defend Rose Creek, Chisolm has to take who he can get. They include: Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), a wisecracking gambler good with dynamite, a Confederate sharpshooter calling himself the Angel of Death (a scruffy Ethan Hawke), a half-delusional trapper (an even scruffier and portly, Vincent D’Onofrio), a Korean knife-fighting master (Byung-hun Lee), a Comanche warrior ostracized by his tribe (Martin Sensmeier), and a handsome Mexican bandit (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo).
There’s little chemistry between these warriors, all of whom emerge from dark pasts and are prone to make their livings swindling or doing harm to others. What camaraderie exists arises from appreciating one another’s specific weapons’ skills. Emma sometimes shoots affectionate glances in Chisolm’s direction while we wait for them to develop into something more. Is Chisolm too practical for such a dalliance? We never find out because acknowledging such feelings would require exploring interracial romance at a time when there was little or no tolerance for it.
Instead, shots ring out, things go boom, and bodies pile up in the streets. Bad things happen, especially to the gold baron’s thugs, all of whom are little more than cardboard cutouts. Passable, but wholly unremarkable, ultimately, “The Magnificent Seven” neither advances nor detracts from the western genre. It’s just there.