“This country has long equated democracy with capitalism, capitalism with God,” drawls would-be tycoon Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) in the opening sequence of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. The almost meta-aware remark could either be a commentary on the state of remakes, or a firm political stance by director Antoine Fuqua. Instead, it’s the tip of the Stetson to old Hollywood westerns, and operates on the premise of not fixing what ain’t broke.
Shifting the setting from a Mexican village town to the white settlement of Rose City, with Bogue terrorising Rose City for its nearby mining operation, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) enlists the help of bounty hunter Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington) to help rid them of the menace. He fills his crew out with gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), gun-shy sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his knife-wielding partner Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), tracker and human bear Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and a Comanche warrior named Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). What starts as a paid gig turns into a matter of honour as they find their true calling.
There’s a boldness to just how straight THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN plays out. Screenwriters Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) and Richard Wenk (The Equalizer) never stray too far from the formula, even though there’s a consciously progressive approach to a traditional western. Eschewing the “white saviour” narrative that hung over the 1960 version, which in itself was a departure from the Seven Samurai source material, the film dodges many of the pitfalls of recent revisionist pieces as well. The high noon shootouts, the training montages (with music!) and enough gunsmoke to give atmosphere to every discotheque in the west. It’s a checklist of about everything you’d hope to see in an old-school western.
In an ensemble piece, casting is key, and Fuqua has managed to access a diverse cast that fits in easily with this morally simplistic world. Before we meet any of the ‘Seven,’ the gaunt Sarsgaard steps onto the stage relentlessly chewing his surroundings with unambiguous villainy, cutting off at the pass any arguments from the conservative right that this is another anti-capitalist missive. It’s actually just pro-human, and Washington is the human fellow that steps into the Yul Brynner role carrying a weight from a past that is slowly revealed throughout the film.
Of the rest of the cast, Pratt throws around a cockiness of a fellow who has effectively played cowboys since Guardians of the Galaxy, while Lee, Garcia-Rulfo, and Sensmeier give rounded performances. Hawke is memorable in his spin on the angst-ridden character Robert Vaughan made famous, hissing and twitching during the gunfire. Yet it’s D’Onofrio who dominates his scenes, physically imposing and dangerous, but making a distinctive vocal choice of ‘Walter Brennan on helium’ that would make Tom Hardy’s Bane proud. Haley Bennett is the unofficial ‘eighth’ member, not providing a connection to the town, but an additional gun when needed while thankfully never having to lower herself to being the token love interest.
Many modern westerns look to Sergio Leone and other Spaghetti westerns, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN prefers the lush vistas of John Ford. While principal photography took place in Louisiana, beautifully captured and sweeping shots of New Mexico pepper the work of Fuqua’s regular cinematographer, Mauro Fiore. James Horner’s final score, completed by colleague Simon Franglen, is a rousing set of thematic stings, often quoting Elmer Bernstein’s iconic theme but not outright breaking into it until the film has ‘earned’ it. (Think of David Arnold’s approach to Casino Royale‘s James Bond Theme). Action sequences are fast and furious, and while the film is careful to not glamourise death, their is something balletic about the rapid gunplay and the brutality of the hand-to-hand fighting.
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN may never live up to the reputation of the 1960 version, but it’s a classy update that clearly has great affection for the westerns that preceded it. No two versions of this tale have been identical, and rather than thinking of this as a remake or reboot, it’s simply a part of the continuing evolution of the western that has been occurring since the earliest days of cinema.