By Jeff Boudreaux
Denzel Washington reunites with Director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day,” “The Equalizer”) for “The Magnificent Seven,” a rousing, rollicking remake of John Sturges’s 1960 classic of the same name (which itself was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai”). Now, just because the story has been filmed twice before (that we know of) does not mean that it isn’t original in its own way or worth seeing. Quite the contrary, Fuqua’s film plays like a spaghetti western redux of the classic story which pits seven strangers united for a common cause, namely the protection of a group of innocent settlers from a ruthless land baron, played with deliciously evil relish by Peter Sarsgaard. And while it did resemble the ultra-violent (but not gratuitous) nature of those western renditions that began on the other side of the Atlantic in the early 1960’s, it has a markedly different feel than that of Tarantino’s last two homages to the genre, simply by utilizing an unmistakable spirit of fun which runs throughout the course of the film.
Our story begins in the quiet, western town of Rose Creek, which has come under the control of a greedy, despicable land developer named Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard). As the meek townsfolk gather in their church to discuss ways to survive, Bogue and his vast entourage of gunslingers burn down their place of worship and kill anyone who has the gall to question it. One of those men was the husband of Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett of “The Haunting of Molly Hartley,” “Hardcore Henry”), who decides to take matters into her own hands by hiring a bounty hunter named Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) that she finds in the next town over. Of course, Sam won’t admit that he’s a bounty hunter, he prefers referring to himself as a “duly-elected warrant officer out of Wichita, Kansas!” Nevertheless, Sam is moved by Emma’s story and agrees to help her, but he’ll have to assemble a team. First up is a gambler named Josh Farraday (Chris Pratt), presumably because he’s the only other man left alive in the saloon where Chisolm had previously tried serving his warrant!
They enlist the help of several other unique characters along the way to Rose Creek, including Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), an old friend of Sam’s who was a sharpshooter for the Confederate army, his amazing protégé Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee of “Red 2” and “I Saw the Devil” fame), a low-tier Mexican outlaw named Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), a simple-minded, but deadly tracker and get this – the Comanche warrior (Martin Sensmeier) that the latter was tracking! You may ask yourself how men of so many different backgrounds wind up on the same page. Do they all have hearts of gold? Not exactly. Is it the money that Emma promises them? Possibly. Or is it the sheer sport of taking on an evil man the likes of Bartholomew Bogue? Maybe it’s a combination of all of these reasons, but one thing is for certain – Sam has the gift for inspiring people, which is why he is the de facto leader of this bunch, no questions asked. As Sam and his men enter Rose Creek, let’s just say that they deliver a dynamic message back to Bogue – and that is to say that the town of Rose Creek is once again under the control of the people. But wait, not so fast! Since it will take Bartholomew Bogue roughly one week to gather an army and descend upon Rose Creek with hellish fury, Sam makes it known that while he and his men were hired to help defend the town, the residents of Rose Creek will need to learn to fight right alongside them.
Most impressive about this film is its highly-diverse cast, particularly in terms of the seven. It’s honestly a brilliant idea, as the differences between these actors coming together onscreen actually cause each other to shine. In case you hadn’t noticed, Denzel Washington is a master at that “quiet calm” demeanor, and his characterization of Sam Chisolm is almost an extension of Robert McCall from Fuqua’s “The Equalizer,” that is if he were wearing chaps and a gun belt. Likewise, fans of Chris Pratt have learned what to expect from him and they will not be disappointed as he is very funny here (and convincingly tough) as the quick-draw gambler who always has a taste for whiskey. Props also have to be given to actress Haley Bennett, who created a very strong female character in Emma Cullen. The biggest surprise to me, however, was the performance of Peter Sarsgaard, who literally stole every scene he was in. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that this may be his greatest role ever as one of the most unorthodox western villains in quite some time.
Now for the biggest reason to see this film – it employs a timeless universal theme, and that is that there are definitely things worth fighting, and even dying for. It also brings back the classic western hero, even though it is spread out across seven different characters. They’re called magnificent for a reason, and that is because they are a dying breed, fighting injustice just for the sheer hell of it. Watching these “best of the best” work cohesively can excite just about anybody, I would think. I can also honestly say that I haven’t had this much fun with a western since spaghetti icons Terence Hill and Bud Spencer made it a point to clean up the European version (i.e. Spain) of our American West, picture after picture in the early 1970’s. But even more than that, it’s also reminiscent of all those great old Hollywood classics. You know, the ones where there’s a jail or a town to hold, such as Howard Hawks’s “Rio Bravo,” and Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon,” not to forget this movie’s own 1960 namesake. (Hint: These films are all required western viewing as far as I’m concerned!) Yes, I have a feeling that the motion picture art form known as the western is most assuredly making a significant comeback, thanks to visionary directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Antoine Fuqua. Reason being, it’s undoubtedly one of the most entertaining genres in film history, albeit one that was very nearly forgotten.
*** (three out of four stars)