Film: The Magnificent Seven
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writers: Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto
Primary Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Peter Sarsgaard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Haley Bennett, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Luke Grimes, Matt Bomer
US Release Date: 23 September 2016
Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven is not a very good movie. It could be much, much worse, but that doesn’t mean millions of people should pay to go see it. They will, but that’s another matter.
Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard) and his villainous mustache only care about two things: money and power. On his quest for them, he seizes control of the small town of Rose Creek so he can mine the area for gold. Bogue rules through fear and intimidation, and after a local meeting erupts into violence, his reign seems all but secure.
Enter Emma Cullen (Bennett). Desperate, devastated, and angry, Cullen turns to bounty hunter Sam Chislom (Washington) to save Rose Creek. She offers him all the money she has, and he agrees to take the job. To this end, Chislom recruits six other men—all of them violent, most of them criminals. Chislom’s motley crew of gunslingers includes alcoholic gambler Josh Faraday (Pratt), sharpshooting ex-Confederate soldier Robicheaux (Hawke), knife-wielding Asian Billy Rocks (Lee), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Garcia-Rulfo), Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Sensmeier), and racist tracker Jack Horne (D’Onofrio).
Together, these seven men infiltrate Rose Creek, where they then take up the seemingly impossible task of preparing its residents for battle with Bogue.
Even viewers who are unfamiliar with the film’s antecedents—John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven (1960) and Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954)—will leave Fuqua’s film with the sense that they’ve seen it all before. With the exception of a diverse cast, this The Magnificent Seven brings very little to the table. Thanks largely to its actors, the film remains mildly entertaining, but even its more enjoyable moments begin to crumble under close scrutiny. The Magnificent Seven is just fun enough for a late-summer blockbuster. It’s also empty, poorly executed, and lamentably average.
The Magnificent Seven opens with a shootout, but not with any dramatic weight. The film’s first moments are supposed to be dark. Their tragedy is meant to lend heft to the narrative and to give a sense of importance to all that follows. That isn’t what happens. Instead, The Magnificent Seven takes its first steps on what is clearly shaky ground. Thanks to a combination of poor writing, caricature-like characters, and a clumsy presentation of violence, the beginning of Fuqua’s film tilts in the direction of parody. Where they should feel emotionally invested and utterly captivated, many viewers will feel the urge to laugh. For some, that feeling will last for the entire film.
The biggest problem with The Magnificent Seven is its writing. Fans of True Detective will be disappointed to learn that Nic Pizzolatto’s contributions to the film—whatever they actually are—do nothing to elevate it beyond the ordinary. They may even be part of the problem.
Instead of coming across as either an homage to the western or as a statement about what the western can be, The Magnificent Seven is more of a soulless ensemble action movie than anything else. Or a vanilla-as-hell superhero one. Ideas, focus, purpose, and character are often nowhere to be found. Instead, so much of the film feels derivative, that it’s actually distracting. Somehow, Legolas, Boromir, and Eowyn all make appearances in the film, and not with any subtlety. For a moment, the ghost of Daniel Plainview seems to take over (which is less interesting than it sounds). Despite Fuqua’s more serious aims, Blazing Saddles creeps in. There is even a scene which is so similar to one in Django Unchained, some viewers may wish they were watching Tarantino’s film instead.
The Magnificent Seven is also filled with thin, underwritten characters. Denzel Washington is clearly a talented actor, but writers Wenk and Pizzolatto do little to take advantage of this fact. The same is true for Sarsgaard, who is so underutilized by this film its almost criminal. In fact, the entire group at the center of the film never becomes more than a set of figures on horseback. For the most part, The Magnificent Seven shows little interest in making its heroes three-dimensional. When it does show such interest, it is too quickly distracted by something else—bullets, usually involved. Luckily for Fuqua, the film is buoyed by a solid cast. They are capable of much more than this film allows them to do.
When the film hints at something like character exploration and development, it seldom delivers. For instance, Hawke and Lee play a pair of characters who, if treated appropriately, could form the center of a compelling film all on their own. Their relationship is complex and unorthodox, and one gets a sense that each has darkness in his past. Unfortunately, The Magnificent Seven fails (or forgets) to do much with them. With Hawke’s Robicheaux in particular, the film hints at emotional depth while inching toward an acknowledgement of the sharpshooter’s interiority. But Fuqua doesn’t deliver on such promises, and none of his characters are really given the time and attention needed for meaningful development.
Viewers of The Magnificent Seven don’t get know any of the figures on screen, which robs the film of anything like emotional weight. For all the struggle and strife, the film has little impact. Even when portraying death, Fuqua fails to stir any feelings of loss.
Fuqua and cinematographer Mauro Fiore chose to shoot the film on 35 mm, in part as a way of honoring the tradition of westerns. There are some good-looking shots in the film, but overall, its visuals also fall short. The images in The Magnificent Seven do little to evoke any western history or magic. An over-use of quick cutting and a lack of shots that truly take advantage of the scenery are both partially to blame.
After opening in less-than-stellar fashion, The Magnificent Seven ends on a cringe-worthy note. Again, a moment that is meant to be taken seriously simply fails to land. The last few seconds are almost laughable, and they send a shock wave back through the film that threatens to retroactively weaken even its strongest moments.
The Magnificent Seven has charisma and charm. It’s also disappointing. There are some good ideas sprinkled throughout, but they get lost in the generic. Star presence and big-budget production value aside, Fuqua’s latest is all surface. Grit and grandeur are nowhere to be found.
If Hollywood produces another star-studded western any time soon, let’s hope it better than The Magnificent Seven. This often old-fashioned genre needn’t fade away, but it might if isn’t given new life. An original script, a clear purpose (other than money), and fully-formed characters would all be a good place to start.