For a long time now, what few Westerns have cropped up have mostly been in the revisionist mold. This means that instead of embracing the mythology of the Old West the way directors like John Ford did, modern Westerns instead go for a gritty, violent, morally complex depiction of the American West. Gone are black hats and white hats, sweeping vistas full of opportunity and promise, PG violence and virtuous homesteaders. Instead, the revisionist Western presents morally questionable heroes, more brutal violence and an overall depiction of the West as a dangerous, dirty, cruel, almost hellish place. Which is probably more realistic than the squeaky-clean Westerns of old, but that doesn’t make it a more “valid” sub-genre than the classical Western, which came to be seen as quaint but outdated.
But this attitude is starting to slowly ebb away, and a return to a more idealized Western is starting to happen. Maybe it’s fueled by an increased need for escapist fantasy, with the cruel realities of what the West was probably like growing unpalatable to audiences looking for distracting entertainment. Maybe a fond nostalgia for Westerns that aren’t dark and gritty is to blame as well. But whatever the case may be, Westerns are staring to move into a new phase, and Antoine Fuqua’s remake of The Magnificent Seven is an example of that.
The broad strokes of the thing basically match the 1960 original, but with a few key differences. There’s still an oppressed village that sends out a girl to hire what gunfighters she can to come to their defense, a band that comes to number seven in total. But while in the original the victimized peasants and their attackers are Mexicans, Fuqua’s film changes both parties into Americans. The village under threat are American homesteaders, and their oppressors a local industrialist and his goons, intent on demolishing the town to…..industrialize or something, it’s never really specified what his end goals are.
So this time around, it’s ultimately a story about Americans fighting other Americans, hard-working salt of the Earth folk against a destructive industrial complex that would kill them outright in the name of “progress”. In this film, evil is a figure of authority, and its enforcers wear badges. So you certainly can’t say it isn’t current.
And yes, as discussed before, Magnificent Seven is less concerned with the gritty realism of its revisionist peers and more with being the kind of Western that you imagine all Westerns are when you’re a kid. The seven are each various shades of superhuman, boasting various tricks and gimmicks that make the action scenes fun for the most part. And even though the American industrialist villain raises the potential for all kinds of explorations of things like oppressive corporate greed, the cost of progress and the poverty gap, it’s ultimately still a very “good guys vs bad guys” kind of movie. There’s no real moral gray area here, just heroes and villains.
So the film has a lot to make it interesting, but not a whole lot to make it good.
It struggles and ultimately fails to find any kind of balance when it comes to its cast, with headliners Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke hogging all the screen time and characterization. And even then, Chris Pratt’s “character” is basically just that he’s Chris Pratt. Supporting cast members Byung-hun Lee, Martin Sensmeier and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo basically have to pick up the table scraps of their more recognizable peers, barely eking out any kind of characterization in the long run.
The film also suffers for lack of a decent villain. Peter Sarsgaard mostly just stands around staring into the middle distance, probably bored that he doesn’t get to have as much fun playing cowboy as his castmates do.
And that’s basically the one thing Magnificent Seven has in its favor, besides some lovely cinematography: it’s very clear that everyone involved (in the main cast at least) is enjoying themselves, and that leads to a general atmosphere of lighthearted fun. It makes for a decent rainy-day movie, if nothing else.
Though not an amazing one, honestly. As fun as the action can be, it can also start to get mechanical at times, a rinse-repeat of “Main cast member fires off-screen, cut to an unnamed badguy falling over”. The big finale has its moments, but fans of Miike’s Thirteen Assassins may find themselves fondly remembering its very similar conclusion and how much better it was at the same kind finale.
Magnificent Seven is the kind of movie that gets lost in the shuffle of Summer Movie Season, usually overshadowed by a more anticipated release before quietly shuffling to streaming and video. In the case of Magnificent Seven, you can kind of see why. It’s about as acceptable and middle-of-the-road as summer movies get, neither as fun and well-crafted as Captain America: Civil War or as grossly incompetent as Suicide Squad. It simply is. It’s a fun, distracting cowboy movie with some actors you’ll recognize and maybe even one or two who’ll get enough screentime to be fun watching, but you’ll forget most of it within a few days. The only thing worth talking about in regard to it is how it breaks from the revisionist tradition to be the closest thing to a classical Western hollywood’s done in a good long while. And even then, Magnificent Seven will inevitably become a footnote when a better movie doing the same thing comes along.