"Magnificent Seven" Remake Is All Hat, No Cattle

Moving a family across the American frontier of the late 1800s was a remarkable act of good faith – or complete insanity. Mounting a big-budget western in the twenty-first century? Not so different. Most filmmakers not named Quentin Tarantino have died (at the box office) trying, leaving the bloated corpses of “Jonah Hex,” “The Lone Ranger,” and their ilk as sobering reminders – if not outright portents of disaster – to those following in their cobwebbed footsteps.

Antoine Fuqua’s remake of 1960’s “The Magnificent Seven” (itself a loose remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai”) is such an undertaking, a swollen mass of rusty storytelling and trenchantly familiar cowboy archetypes, albeit one that shrewdly hedges its bets with a pair of winsome movie stars: Denzel Washington (“Flight”) and Chris Pratt (“Guardians Of The Galaxy”). The best the film has to offer is lightly engaging machismo, served with a hefty helping of explosions and gunfire. It’s isn’t enough. The likability of the cast can only cover over the staleness for so long, and soon enough the picture becomes allegory for the disappointing career of its director, the man who once helmed “Training Day.”

It’s no coincidence that the movie’s best scene is both its quietest and its only true-blue “Training Day” reunion. In it, Washington’s quasi-bounty hunter character Sam Chisholm has a late-night heart-to-heart with Ethan Hawke’s sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux. There’s a real vulnerability to the scene, real self-doubt on the part of Robicheaux as to whether he’s man enough to go through with the eponymous septet’s charge: to protect a small town and its peaceful denizens from a ruthless, bloodthirsty industrialist named Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) and his well-armed militia. The scene is a perfect picture of a man staring death in the face and flinching, and it’s one of the movie’s few traces of honest-to-God feeling.

The rest, as scripted by “True Detective” writer Nic Pizzolatto and “The Equalizer” scribe Richard Wenk, idly goes through the motions, spreading its surplus of characters thin like a dot of jam on toast. There’s nothing to most of them, each performer left to make a character out of physicality and vocal inflection alone. Vincent D’Onofrio’s Jack Horne, a tracker, is all misplaced bluster, inexplicably yelping his dialogue as if competing for his share of attention. It might not be far from the truth.

Denzel Washington remains a wondrous showman, able to sell the most underwritten of characters as ambiguously compelling. Chris Pratt isn’t there yet. His Josh Faraday is a muddle of vices (gambling, drinking) and cold-bloodedness, destined to lose a large percentage of the audience the second he kills a low-level conman for no real reason. The same boyish charm that worked so well in “Guardians” and less so in “Jurassic World” doesn’t add up here, belying his character’s grizzled, world-weary persona that suggests a much older – or at least crankier – man.

Hawke’s Robicheaux and his sidekick Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee) come the closest to being fully formed cowmen, spitting in the face of their limited screen time. Hawke’s performance is a euphoric one, and Lee’s assassin can kill a man with a hairpin. Sold! If only their idiosyncrasies were fully wrung out, or at least not diluted by the rest of the stone-faced company.

Sarsgaard’s last go-round as a villain in a would-be blockbuster didn’t go well. This time, he isn’t around long enough to make much of an impression, doing dastardly deeds in the prologue and then disappearing from the film for a full hour. The only thing compelling about his brand of villainy is the case it makes for scrapping the MPAA. The movie is violent, the kind of violent that would have locked up an R-rating a mere ten years ago. That it’s hit theaters with a PG-13 is both inexplicable and unsurprising, further evidencing that the antiquated trade association with a curious lenience towards gun violence has long overstayed its welcome. In brief, Sarsgaard’s Bogue isn’t half the antagonist the MPAA has become.

The movie looks terrific, though.

As our magnificently handsome gunslingers with uniformly perfect teeth ride across picture-perfect vistas, preparing to sacrifice their lives for the greater good (or some money, if they happen to survive), it’s easy to get lost in the scenery. Conversely, it’s hard to care about the men inhabiting it. This is a western on autopilot, without even enough male chauvinism to generate any controversy. It doesn’t have much use for its lone female character, though, no matter how game actress Haley Bennett is for some hellfire. Her portrayal of widow Emma Cullen is a spark the narrative fails to use in its favor.

A two-hour running time that feels more like three is the biggest hitch of all. The build-up to the final confrontation is pained, bordering on arthritic, and the payoff delivers nothing but the same action beats as every Fuqua actioner – but this time in the old west!

Fuqua’s last picture, “Southpaw,” was a minor victory but a significant uptick in quality from the likes of “Shooter” and “Olympus Has Fallen.” “The Magnificent Seven” sees him once again struggling to find reasons for moviegoers to bother. Those thirsty for A-list celebrities playing cowboy will be sated, but anyone looking for something more – something alive – is sure come up empty-handed.

It feels right that the film ends with an out-of-the-blue voiceover from Haley Bennett and some of the ugliest CGI this side of the final “Hobbit” film. It enhances the feeling that Fuqua’s cobbled together another in a long line of uninspired westerns. A half-century removed from the western’s heyday, the project doesn’t even utilize its diverse cast to comment on the racial realities of the genre; past, present, or future. It merely exists, happy to trade on the names of its stars for a healthy box office return. All but western fanatics should ride right on by.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: September 23, 2016
Studio: Sony Pictures, MGM
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Screenwriter: Nic Pizzolatto, Richard Wenk
Starring: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, Matt Bomer, Peter Sarsgaard
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for extended and intense sequences of Western violence, and for historical smoking, some language and suggestive material)