August 6, 2017 Comments Off on The Magnificent Seven (2016)
The original The Magnificent Seven (1960) is a favourite Western of mine, and I’m a fan of Westerns, generally, for their ability to simplify the setting for a story and tell tales that almost feel like fables. It’s a great way to tell slimmed-down, sharply told stories. The 1960 film is a brilliant idea for a retelling of Seven Samurai (1954), another film that really should not be missed for its compelling story, briskly and expertly told, despite a long running-time.
The original 1960 film had an all-star cast at the time, including Yul Brynner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson and Steve McQueen. The seven gunfighters assembled to defend a small town didn’t have complex backstories in the 1960 film: they’re generally characters with something to prove or little to lose. Maybe on some level they believe the innocent should be defended, but they’re not particularly good at showing it. The 2016 film assembles another all-star cast, and it’s interesting to see the story retold in this way. Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio are all excellent, and the film also troubles itself to try and have a significant, capable female character from the town as played by Haley Bennett (also excellent) and Martin Sensmeier is convincing as a young, exiled Comanche warrior. It’s hard to take your eyes off him. Just seeing this cast assembled to give weight to the various roles is enjoyable enough — it’s surprising it took so many decades for the film to be remade when arguably every generation would do something interesting with the story of a last, desperate grab at meaning and glory.
What the newer film has going for it is a certain grimness and gritty quality to the action. Some critics disliked this, but I think it gives extra weight to the idea of sacrifice. These characters aren’t just going to defend a small town under threat of being shot and dropping dead, they might be facing a more gruesome death, and yet still they go. Peter Sarsgaard is particularly good as the oily villain who rules by fear and appears to see other people with little but contempt. Let’s face it, the earlier film just basically has good guys and bad guys in a stylish celebration of making a glorious exit. Even the music in the original is — while one of the great film scores — basically fanfare. So I thought the new film honoured the original while adding new gravity to the proceedings, based on film’s ability to be a little more extreme these days. The action is well-realized and involving, particularly when it comes to the attack on the town.
And then by the final ten or fifteen minutes, it all goes a bit off the rails. As though deciding a collection of desperate characters grabbing at glory isn’t enough (spoilers, ahoy), the film decides to suddenly more or less flip to another plot and introduce the idea the Washington character has a personal connection to the villain, in the most bland you-killed-my-wife-now-I’ll-kill-you sort of way. It’s disappointing, partly because it has been done so many times before, and partly because the original point of the film suddenly feels a bit jettisoned. In the smoking ruins of a town, with dead from both sides all around, the Washington character allows the Sarsgaard character a final showdown in the street (and, a chance to win) suddenly applying the brakes to all the frantic, hopeful, desperate fighting that was about putting a stop to his army and his sadistic, money-grubbing ways. I almost felt like crying out “What are you doing?” It’s at this point any added feeling of realism goes out the window. And the final line of the film by Haley Bennett, that it was a struggle that was, yes, “magnificent,” also irritate, though it may not have bothered some others.
A worthy reimagining of an earlier film borrows the plot and does something a little different, like buying a house and moving in your own furniture. The 2016 film was on its way there when it decided to apply the brakes and try something slightly different at the absolute last minute, as though to appeal to more viewers or in case the original plot didn’t suffice. I hope it isn’t something like fifty-six years before we see another group of talented actors try to be magnificent.