Less a modern Western than an inside look at Hollywood’s fragile psychology, the film “The Magnificent Seven” is a lesson in the way that the movies think at the moment. It’s an encouraging thing, and a more honest historical assessment, to re-create an Old West posse with minorities in major roles. It’s another thing to be so perfectly, comically and distractingly fancied up with diversity that a focus group seems like the only explanation. It’s less “The Magnificent Seven” than the cast of a reality show—like The Real World Nevada.
A remake of the 1960 classic, this time the beleaguered residents of a frontier farming and mining town hire seven gunfighters led by a black U.S. Marshal (Denzel Washington). There are three white men: one boomer (Vincent D’Onofrio), one millennial (Chris Pratt), and one Gen Xer (Ethan Hawke), so that we hit all the age brackets that might show up to the movie. Also signing up are a Mexican outlaw (Miguel Garcia-Ruffo) and an Asian knife-thrower (Byung-Hun Lee), who should be able to sell the movie in the Chinese market. Most improbably, a Commanche rides in on a horse. Luckily, he’s a dead-eye with an arrow and totally cool with going on suicide missions for American money that’s worthless in his culture. And the second you see the redheaded Jennifer Lawrence clone Haley Bennett holding a rifle, you know she’s going to get the last shot in on the villain, naturally an evil capitalist (Peter Sarsgaard).
The suggestion is that of a poor, huddled, and tired few gunfighters brought together and made stronger by its different origins—a gunsmoke E Pluribus Unum. Looking at the streets of Charlotte this month, does that appear to square with the reality of modern America? Hollywood seems to be dealing a fantasy version straight from an industry that sells diversity but doesn’t practice it itself.
Director Antoine Fuqua has the same lovely way with light, dark and shadow that he always has shown, starting with photographing Joy Division for Factory Records all those years ago. The hints of light splashing onto the characters’ faces at night have the quality of a Vermeer. As masterly as Fuqua can place light on faces, he’s worse at composition and action. In the gunfights, Fuqua never figures out whether to shoot from in close or at distance. He tries to repeat the slow-build tension effectively used in “The American.” But it goes like a barrel of water shot through with bullet holes.
In writing about “The Magnificent Seven” I’m at either a handicap or a big advantage. That’s because ….. rve nvrsn thrginal. OK, I’ll speak up. I’ve never seen the 1960 original, the one with Yul Brenner and Steve McQueen saving a Mexican village from outlaws. I’ve seen Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai,” on which it was based. I figured, hey, why see the other one?
So I come to it with fresh eyes. And those fresh eyes can’t see what’s so great about their accomplishment. The final battle consists of about two-hundred mercenaries riding on an embedded position laced with dynamite, manned by a militia defending its homes, augmented by a small team of special forces. It’s supposed to be this struggle against long odds. Eh, by historical military standards, that’s a pretty even fight, really. I see the seven, but I’m not sure I see the magnificence.
Currently in theaters.
Film was produced by Roger Birnbaum and Todd Black.