Not every film has to have Oscar-caliber performances, a heartwarming message on the unbreakable human spirit or a spiral of philosophical doublespeak, which must be viewed at least 80 times for the optimal experience. Sometimes, you just want to see cool people shoot uncool people—something the first film to carry the name “The Magnificent Seven” did remarkably well. This new one, for the most part, isn’t so cool. In fact, in keeping with the vernacular, I would have to call it uncool.
The story is the same broad stroke you know from “The Seven Samurai” and the 1960 film: for a paycheck, a band of deadly, amoral misfits aid a town under siege by a strongman. This time, the strongman is Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard)—a sleepy-eyed, sweaty, weasel—who hops from town to town, puts a gun to the town’s collective head and makes them an offer they can’t refuse. If that was all he did in Rose Creek, he might have gotten away with it, but he makes the dire mistake of killing a man wedded to a vengeful woman, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett). Upon meeting with Chisolm (Denzel Washington), a licensed bounty hunter, Cullen employs him under the verbal contract of “I seek righteousness, but I’ll take revenge.” Hardly a job for one man, Chisolm recruits Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier)—a gumbo of guys who don’t invite sustained eye contact.
For those whose ears perk at “Western,” the film delivers the goods. There’s sprawling shots of restless riders throwing up dust against a naked landscape, railings collapse under the weight of dead men and good hats are sacrificed as warning shots—followed by a single drop of blood running down the forehead. Chisolm even does some horse acrobatics to avoid gunfire.
In the original films, the seven come to know the townsfolk, and like a hideous monster admiring a flower, each finds something of interest—such as love, forgiveness or innocence. But when the day is saved, the town rips off the remaining of the seven like a used Band-Aid. “We lost. We always lose,” Yul Brynner says to Steve McQueen, as they take one last look at the town full of friends, families and peace of mind—things they’ll never have. They are vagabonds whose immorality is packaged and exploited, rather than nurtured and repaired.
This new film throws all that to the wind, as the group has no relationship with the townsfolk whatsoever. Instead of outcasts, the film paints the seven as selfless champions who just don’t know it yet, creating the air of a hollow underdog story that relies on “rah-rah” moments rather than substance. The film has more in common with the mushy Westerns of the 1980s than the hard-edged Westerns of the 1960s.
Not only did the original film have the King of Cool himself, Steve McQueen, but he was joined by Charles Bronson, James Coburn and Yul Brynner–pictures of serene masculinity. There aren’t exactly a lot of Charles Bronson types running around today, so the new film abandons the cool factor, opting for two movie stars—Washington and Pratt—and surrounding them with character actors. Pratt feels a little too much like he’s playing cowboys and Indians in his backyard, whereas Hawke is the standout as the dead-eye with PTSD.
By the time we finally hear Elmer Bernstein’s gallant score, it’s been inexplicably blackballed into the end-credits. One of the most rousing, powerful film compositions ever made, and instead of accompanying a high-stakes shoot-out or a turning of the tide, it’s sprawled over the names of actors and cameramen. Of all the sins of the new “Magnificent Seven,” this is the most heinous.
3 out of 5 stars