Back in 1960, The Magnificent Seven hit theatres, a remake of a Japanese film, Seven Samurai, with a group of unlikely heroes coming to the aid of those in need. The American western was marked as a classic early on, with Yul Brynner leading a group of gunmen and fighters against a brutal bandit and his gang. That film spawned several sequels and a more recent television series. These days director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, King Arthur) has brought the concept back to the big screen in a new western with strong character actors and a nasty antagonist.
In the West of the years after the Civil War, industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) has his sights set on a small town. The townspeople call for help, and the call is heeded. Bounty hunter Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington) enlists a group with various talents- gambler Josh Farraday (Chris Pratt), gunman Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), assassin Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), and Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier).
The film’s been in development for years on end- at times there were rumours of Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, and Tom Cruise attached at one time or another, the last of those actors being a horrific choice, so fortunately that didn’t happen. The screenplay by Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk revisits the idea of a disparate group coming to serve a better cause, and blends in themes of standing up to tyranny and terror, certainly things that resonate in this current day. While the script features clear differences between the protagonists and antagonist, with a strong ethical line the former do not cross, the story also touches on something that wasn’t addressed in classic Westerns- that there was a rich diversity of society in the West, with black cowboys, Asian immigrants, and outspoken women. Beyond that, the story doesn’t really build on what’s come before, though it does entertain.
Fuqua himself has a fondness for Westerns, and it shows in the way he directs this. A good part of his past work goes into the urban thriller or drama sort of category, such as Training Day, The Equalizer, Olympus Has Fallen, or Brooklyn’s Finest, but there are exceptions, such as the war drama Tears of The Sun and his take on the Arthurian legend in King Arthur. A Western is a new concept for him, but he handles it well, particularly in terms of action set pieces and use of the land as a character in and of its own right. Which is surprising, when you learn that a good part of the filming was done around Louisiana, with more in New Mexico. While the latter state is definitely Western country, the former doesn’t seem to fit that mold, and yet the film feels set in the West.
There’s a lot to the details, small and large, that I liked, that gave the film more of an authentic touch. The actors come across as if they’ve been in the saddle for a long while, with the accompanying dust for good measure- that’s what cowboy boot camp will do for you. Each of the Seven- as well as other members of the cast- have their own distinctive look, a nod to makeup and costuming that serves the story well. Sets feel drawn right out of the past, with dusty towns and shops and windswept landscapes letting you think you’ve dropped in on the latter half of the 19th century.
Usually with a film, one of the last things completed is the music score, done after editing is finished. That’s not the case with this film, though. James Horner was brought in to compose the score early on- and he composed music for it before his accidental death in 2015. This represents the final of Horner’s posthumous scores since then- with additional music composed and the complete work orchestrated by Horner’s producer Simon Franglen. It’s a fitting finale for the composer, true to Western tradition and his own style as a composer.
The cast are all well chosen, starting with the antagonist. Sarsgaard is an actor who can disappear into a role- he’s been in films as diverse as Jarhead, K-19 The Widowmaker, The Man In The Iron Mask, Kinsey, and Flightplan. The last project I’ve seen him in was the unfortunate Green Lantern, but that wasn’t his fault. Here he plays the ruthless Bogue, a man driven by greed, callous and disregarding of anyone but himself, a cruel and heartless man, thoroughly corrupt. There’s nothing at all to like about the character, but Sarsgaard makes him compelling to watch.
Haley Bennett appears as Emma Cullen, one of the townspeople who bring in the Seven. The character is a widow, having had lost her husband in a horrible way, which gives her all the more reason to want some serious payback. The story gives her a good deal to do- she’s not the typical Western damsel in distress, but a strong minded person with opinions and reserves of strength all her own, and before the film is done, one might have called the film The Magnificent Eight.
In going with a rather diverse cast, Fuqua made a wise choice as opposed to just going with seven white guys, some of whom would fade into each other (this was more problematic in the original film’s sequels). Byung-hun Lee is a South Korean actor whose American work includes Red 2 and Terminator Genisys. His character’s name doesn’t reflect the character’s ethnicity, but is one of those easily overlooked aspects of Western history- plenty of people from around the world sought opportunities in the West. Billy Rocks, as he’s known, is someone not to be crossed, and very good at what he does. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo is well cast as Vasquez, the Mexican outlaw and bandit. The character is a tenacious gunfighter, one who has nothing to lose. Martin Sensmeier’s Native roots actually come from up north in Alaska, but he plays the Comanche warrior Red Harvest with authority and strength.
Vincent D’Onofrio is one of those character actors who can be good in pretty much anything he does, hence he’ll never run out of work. The actor plays the tracker Horne, a shambling wreck of a man who provides some of the humour of the film. He gives the character a gruff, rough and tumble sensibility, and a down to earth personality. Like his counterparts, Horne is not the sort of person you want to get on the bad side of.
Ethan Hawke has worked with Fuqua before, on Training Day and Brooklyn’s Finest. His character, Robicheaux, is a former Confederate veteran, haunted by his past, a broken man in some ways. He’s also deadly at what he does- namely sharpshooting- and driven by the ghosts of what’s come before him. It makes for a compelling performance as the character finds himself drawn into fighting for the right cause.
Chris Pratt gets the bulk of the movie’s charm as Farraday, the gambler handy in a gun fight. He’s a smooth talker and sly trickster, and in many ways is occupying the same position as Steve McQueen in the original film. Smooth talker though he might be, he’s a calm head in a fight, and the actor plays to those qualities through the film. It’s a role with humour to it as well, something that the actor is particularly gifted at.
How do you follow up Yul Brynner in the original film and its first sequel? By bringing in a lead actor with that level of personal fortitude and strength. Fuqua had worked with Denzel Washington on Training Day and The Equalizer, and wanted him for this role. Fortunately Washington agreed, and this marks the actor’s first time in a Western. Washington brings the strong sense of moral authority, gravity, courage, and calm leadership that the character requires. It’s easy to see why people follow this man’s lead, and Washington gives Chisholm the right touch of conviction in the way he plays him.
While The Magnificent Seven doesn’t chart that much in the way of new ground for Westerns (aside from nodding to the diversity that was actually out there in the West), it’s an entertaining film, with clear cut villains and heroes, laid back charm, and thrilling action, feeling very much drawn out of the West. The actors bring the right amount of gravity, humour, and depth to their performances, and the film suits the Western genre quite well indeed.