If the sight of Denzel Washington, guns blazing and saddled up for his first western, doesn’t get your pulse racing, read elsewhere. Ignore the hot air blowing in from the Toronto Film Festival, where The Magnificent Seven premiered, that suggests Antoine Fuqua’s remake starring Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke and an ethnically diverse cast, isn’t up to snuff. Really? The haters also threw bricks when Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson played gunslingers in John Sturges’ 1960 version, claiming it couldn’t lick the boots of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 Seven Samurai – a classic “Eastern” about 16th-century Japanese sword-slingers that Sturges so ingloriously updated and indelibly ripped off. Relax, people. The new Seven isn’t aiming for cinema immortality. It’s two hours of hardcore, shoot-em-up pow and it’s entertaining as hell.
The plot is essentially the same: Seven outlaws are hired to wipe out the bad guy who wants to destroy their town. In the 1960 version, Brooklyn-born Eli Wallach, using an outrageous Mexican accent, played the sombrero-wearing villain. This time, the bad guy is Donald Trump. OK, not really – but it is a megalomaniac white dude named Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, all stops out) who uses his army of Caucasian capitalists to buy up all the land, mine it for gold, and fulfill his power-mad dreams of empire building, circa 1879. If that means destroying everything in sight, starting with the local church, so be it. In Bogue’s view, the town of Rose Creek is gonna be huge.
Another droll conceit in the script that Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) wrote with Richard Wenk, is to have the hiring done by a girl. She’s Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), a redheaded widow with an multi-cultural eye for employing assassins. Washington plays Sam Chisolm, a bounty hunter who rides into town with a “don’t-shit-me” attitude. No one mentions he’s black. Reckon they don’t have to; his quick draw has a way of silencing overt racism. Washington has a wicked blast in the role (Fuqua directed him to an Oscar in Training Day), especially when mixing it up with Pratt as Josh Faraday, a gambler who can juggle one-liners and sticks of dynamite with equal ease. Watching the playful give-and-take between Washington and Pratt is one of the film’s joys. And Vincent D’Onofrio as Jack Horne, a grizzly mountain man who looks like a brick wall, is the butt of many jokes.
Hawke adds a note of gravity as Goodnight Robicheaux, a Confederate sharpshooter once known as the Angel of Death but now, alarmingly, losing his nerve. Luckily, he brings along his Korean best friend Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), an expert with knives of every size. Then there’s Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a “Texican” with trust issues. And wait till you see Red Harvest (a sensational Martin Sensmeier), a Comanche in face paint, possessed of killer skill with a bow and arrow.
It’s disappointing that the color-blind casting is more surface gimmick than emotional depth charge, and that there is no attempt to ground the story in historical fact. But the actors give it their all. And it’s a kick to see diversity out there riding into a new kind of future. Better yet, Fuqua can stage a gunfight like nobody’s business. At the end, when the new James Horner score morphs into the immortal theme created by Elmer Bernstein in 1960, the reasons we give ourselves over to The Magnificent Seven, then and now, is brought home with rousing clarity. Simplistic? OK. Primitive? Sure. What’s undeniable is the bliss.