‘The Magnificent Seven’ is not quite on target

"The Magnificent Seven" | Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Grade: C+
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Courtesy
"The Magnificent Seven" | Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures
Grade: C+

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Oscar winner Denzel Washington meets superstar hunk Chris Pratt to ride some horses and shoot some guns. That sounds like a movie from the gods. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, unfortunately, a lot could and a lot did; there’s just not much to love about the new “The Magnificent Seven.” In an age where Hollywood is remaking remakes — John Sturges’ 1960 “The Magnificent Seven” was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece “Seven Samurai” — the quality is being diluted every iteration. The newest film is not a bad film, but the title deserves better.

Antoine Fuqua’s 2016 version of the classic western follows the quest of Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) to retake her town of Rose Creek from the greedy, powerful hands of Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). After Bogue murders her husband and threatens to violently take the town if they do not accept his offer to buy it, Cullen enlists warrant officer Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) to form a team to fight back. Chisolm recruits gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), religious man Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), knifeman Billy Rocks (Byung-Hun Lee), outlaw Vazquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and estranged Native American bowman Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). These magnificent seven must orchestrate a magnificent plan to save the day.

With more than 10 primary characters, the audience will not get emotional depth and significant background information for each character. But they may accept one-noted characters as long as there’s an aspect of intrigue. For example, Vincent D’Onofrio’s character has well-written dialogue, an unconventional, squeaky voice that complements the dialogue and grizzly features — he’s literally described as a “bear in human skin” — that distinguish the character and make him a deserving part of the seven.

Then, Washington is commanding and has a riveting, halting scene at the end that delves into the atrocities of slavery and illuminates each of his character’s decisions.

But when it comes to the others, the film shoots blanks. Pratt is undeveloped but gets a pass because he acts as the core figure of humor. Ethan Hawke, despite his evident talent, is failed by the material. Byung-Hun Lee’s action scenes are phenomenal, but his sole definition is his ethnicity. Vazquez and Red Harvest, too, almost seem like they’re just there as diversity hires because of their lack of depth — Pratt’s character literally comments on the addition of “a Mexican” to the team. While Bennett begins with proper development, the film forgets about her. And Sarsgaard is not only a typical villain but is on screen for a miniscule fraction of the film. There’s a vacancy in character motivation, and the title ends up unfulfilled, leaving only a magnificent few.

In terms of sculpting a Western out of the rocks of modern filmmaking, Fuqua does an admirable job. The costumes and sets build a proper western landscape, and the cinematography and score — with some enthralling, galloping pieces from the late James Horner —  make this a pure entry in the genre.

And while the action is certainly fine, what is stunningly phenomenal about “The Magnificent Seven” is the build up to the action. Fuqua capitalizes on the aspect of the standoff by lingering heavily on the moments prior to the guns firing, teasing the audience with delicious close-ups on each character, shots that encapsulate the space and quippy dialogue that can only come in that setting. It’s an experience thoroughly singular to the Western genre.

The film is a trying one though. It doesn’t fall in the same category as the “Transformers” franchise — lazy studio cash-grabs. But it does have symptoms of that studio disease that is rampant in Hollywood today. It has its moments —  some laugh-out-loud savoriness that, for some, could warrant the purchase of a ticket — but “The Magnificent Seven” suffers from characters we don’t particularly care about and a story that just isn’t given enough weight, causing the end result not to feel worth it.

Within that though, there is something to say about this film’s place in contemporary cinema. Its potential can be felt, despite only some of it cracking through, precisely because of the strong guidance of Fuqua — a director of color who’s continually executed large-scale, solid films despite the industry’s sea of white men. That is its own magnificent achievement.

“The Magnificent Seven” is opening today at UA Berkeley 7.

 

Kyle Kizu covers film. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @kyle_kizu.