The Magnificent Seven

Antoine Fuqua's The Magnificent Seven is a remake of a remake, but it feels closer in spirit to Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch than to either of its directly-related ancestors. Indeed, the movie frequently feels like the sort of thing Peckinpah might be making if he were working in 21st century Hollywood: a ragged, booze-soaked, swaggering western frequently punctuated by sadistic violence, gallows humor and mournful lyricism.

The story is a simple, straightforward tale of heroes and villains. The bad guy is corrupt businessman Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, An Education), who visits the humble mining town of Rose Creek and makes the townsfolk an offer: either sell him their land for an extremely low price, or prepare to face the wrath of his hired guns. To emphasize how serious he is, he burns down the local church and murders a townsperson. Boo! Hiss!

The townsperson's widow, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett, The Equalizer), decides that Rose Creek needs to fight back. She hires professional bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington, Crimson Tide), who in turn hires pistol-packing gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt, Guardians of the Galaxy), sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke, Boyhood), hairpin-wielding assassin Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee, I Saw the Devil), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Cake), burly tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D'Onofrio, Jurassic World) and Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). With the help of the untalented-but-eager townsfolk, this motley crew will attempt to take down the dastardly Bogue and his army of henchmen.

The Magnificent Seven is neatly divided into three acts – forming the team, preparing for battle, engaging in battle – but this isn't a particularly tidy movie. It's rough around the edges in ways that are both frustrating and fascinating; consistently resisting the sort of slick, polished vibe one expects from a modern blockbuster. You feel the sweat that was put into this movie, and its missteps – wandering down ambitious thematic rabbit trails that don't lead anywhere, tossing up odd jokes that don't quite work, muddling certain character motivations – only add to the sense that this is a film made by real people rather than a series of committees (one exception: a spectacularly corny closing line that feels oh-so-tacked-on). It's messy in a way that feels strangely appealing.

Some of that messiness is deliberately baked into the story itself. As the assorted team members are assembled, you feel like you're on familiar terrain: every player has a unique individual skill, and you just know that particular skill will be employed in some nifty, memorable way during the big showdown. However, it doesn't actually play out that way. The third act battle is a savage, chaotic affair that tears right through such cutesy notions, quickly transforming elegant strategy into a desperate, bloody fight for survival. The final showdown between one of the heroes and the villain is not the stylishly satisfying climax of a Clint Eastwood western, but an unusual, uncomfortably intimate affair defined by half-revealed personal histories, open wounds, whimpered pleas and whispered prayers.

At times, there's a sense that The Magnificent Seven doesn't quite know what it wants to be or (particularly) what it wants to say. The film has a habit of tossing out weighty ideas it doesn't really know what to do with, perhaps forgetting that mentioning something isn't the same thing as dealing with it. In the opening scene, Bogue delivers an odd monologue that draws a direct line between capitalism and God, but I'll be damned if I have any idea what it has to do with anything else in the movie (it feels like a justifiably-deleted scene from There Will Be Blood). Another scene seems to be making a fairly conservative statement about gun control (of the “a bad guy with a gun can only be stopped by a good guy with a gun!” variety), but the notion just sort of stands there awkwardly and then shows itself out. Still, there's something to be said for a movie that so frequently tries to do something unexpected.

The lively cast is the glue that holds the whole thing together. Every player contributes something interesting to the mix, and a lot of the film's best moments are the throwaway bits of banter that occur when everyone is just hanging out. Washington delivers a relaxed, laconic variation on the sort of quietly intense leading man turn he often delivers, often speaking just above a whisper and using his signature grin infrequently enough to make each smile feel like a special occasion. Likewise, Pratt offers a thoughtfully-tweaked version of his usual screen presence, giving his usual “playful smartass” persona a small portion of racism and bloodlust. Perhaps the most surprising turn comes from D'Onofrio, who gives his character a wobbly, distinctive voice that suggests the actor is rebranding himself as the new Pat Buttram. Meanwhile, Sarsgaard once again manages to turn an underwritten part into something memorable, playing a villain so perpetually agitated that you wonder if he might die of stress before anyone actually gets to confront him.

Like pretty much every movie Fuqua has made (including the much-vaunted Training Day), the film is a hit-and-miss affair. Still, this one hits more often than it misses, and marks a return to form of sorts after the ungainly, Oscar bait-y Southpaw. The action scenes work, the performances work, the warm-and-grainy 35mm cinematography works, the casually nihilistic Peckinpah vibe works and James Horner's rousing score – the final work of the great composer's career, elegantly fleshed out by Simon Franglen – really works. It's a real treat to hear Horner's musical voice one last time, but it's also a treat to see a big summer movie that treats film music so lovingly: the score is often front-and-center; rarely drowned out by the gunfire and explosions. Best of all, this is the rare 21st century big-budget western that actually feels like a western rather than a conventional blockbuster wearing a cowboy hat. It's worth a look.

The Magnificent Seven

Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 133 minutes
Release Year: 2016