Antoine Fuqua’s enjoyable western is simple and unsophisticated, but rich in strong iconography.
As one of few classic westerns not steeped in overwhelming right-wing attitudes and casual racism, John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (itself a reinterpretation of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) does seem an appropriate property to remake in the present day. For once, the malevolent villain hunted and fought by the band of heroes is a white man, and in Antoine Fuqua’s new vision of the Seven, this unique aspect of the Seven myth is emphasised and given pride of place.
Fuqua’s film opens with mining baron Bogue (a thrillingly nasty Peter Sarsgaard) besieging the town of Rose Creek and murdering the husband of Haley Bennett’s Emma. We’re then introduced, in operatic and breathtaking fashion, to Denzel Washington as a dressed-in-black, black-horse-riding figure of black power like few we’ve seen in recent cinema. The influence of 70s blaxploitation has run throughout Fuqua’s work, and it’s particularly vivid in large parts of Magnificent. Approaching this film with a desire to experience something topical and resonant, one won’t be entirely disappointed, though the surprising and refreshing diversity of the cast (only 3 of the titular 7 are white) occasionally takes second place to a loud celebration of hyper-masculinity and gun culture.
Washington is without doubt the coolest of the 7, but he’s in good company. Chris Pratt’s performance mostly involves smoking and shooting, but he does both extremely well. Ethan Hawke delivers a reliably strong turn with unexpected nuance, while Vincent D’Onofrio is fascinating but underdeveloped as a character who is more-or-less a human grizzly bear. The three unknowns in the primary cast- Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Martin Sensmeier- are each given a handful of moments to impress (though their work is, like much of this film, more physical than verbal).
The film’s strongest asset in functioning as an extremely solid, very entertaining modern western is Fuqua’s simple approach. Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger and Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, two tedious epics of unprecedented pretentiousness, could’ve done with the coherence and structural tradition that makes Magnificent work, for the most part, quite well. As Fuqua seems to focus on making his film constantly engaging (putting the late James Horner’s terrific final score to superb use), he stumbles upon sequences and shots of intermittent brilliance. While Tarantino busies himself trying (and failing) to emulate Sergio Leone, Fuqua aims much lower: he wants to make the sort of western that nobody remembers the director of. He’s a sharp-shooter, and- in this instance- it pays off.