Friday, September 23, 2016


One of the better trends in Hollywood over the last decade is the contemporary Western; where a film is set in modern times but injected with themes and sensibilities from the Old West. On the opposite side of town is the bastardization trend of injecting modern characters and style into a film actually set in the 1800’s. Such is the wobbly stepping-off point of director Antoine Fuqua’s version of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.

Just after the Civil War, bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), is hired by a widow, Emma (Haley Bennett), to save her town from the reign of terror of Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who wants to level the town for mining rights. Outnumbered by Bogue’s personal army, Chisolm rounds up a gang of gunhands including a gambler (Chris Pratt), a shell-shocked sharpshooter (Ethan Hawke), a tracker (Vincent D’Onofrio), an assassin (Byung-hun Lee), a Mexican outlaw (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and a rogue Comanche warrior (Martin Sensmeier).

Like most Westerns, the plot of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN could not be simpler; assemble the good guys, shoot the bad guys, save the town. Simple stories are always workable with good characters, and this adventure stumbles right out of the saloon. The Seven are drawn very thinly, relying on old clichés like drinking too much, playing cards, and knife-throwing. No one is given much of a backstory, and with little to draw back on, there is very little for the characters to play with. Diversity in a group makes for good drama, and even though this band of gunhands has several shades of skin color, there is nothing beneath that to make for a story that anyone would care about.

Director Antoine Fuqua shows his love for classic Westerns a little too much, as the film plays out like a checklist of things that have to happen in such a film. Stranger walks into a saloon, check. Gunfight in a saloon, check. Guy goes crashing through a saloon window, check. Gun-twirling, check. And on and on and on ad nauseam. With so many familiar elements going on, the plot also falls into predictability…as every turning point in the film can be seen riding up to us from miles away. That makes for boring.

Fuqua’s direction isn’t very inspired. His framing is as clichéd as the rest of the story, as every cowboy is filmed with a tilted hat leaning up against a post at least half-a-dozen times. The silhouetted shots of the characters against sunsets, campfire lighting, and boots walking across a dusty floor come as quickly as we can predict them. On top of everything else, no characters are drawn up or act like they belong in a Western; they’re all too smart, too hip, too skilled, and way too sophisticated for their own good. It’s either an attempt at speaking to general audiences or just laziness in not taking the effort to roughen-up the characters. Either way it doesn’t work. The score, written by the late great James Horner and composed by Simon Franglen, is fantastic.

Acting is a mixed bag. Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt get most of the screentime and the best lines. Both men at least look great in their hats, but both roles are so shallow that we can see them struggling to find some meat to chew on. Ethan Hawke gets the most to do as an actor as his character actually has a personal demon to overcome. Vincent D’Onofrio is hilarious as the slightly off-kiltered trapper but often turns into a cartoon. Peter Sarsgaard is fucking awful. Haley Bennett is as wooden as a saloon door.

The finale consists of Bogue showing up with a million guys, all of which are disposed of in an endless headache of a battle with (PG-13 bloodless) gunfire, knifes, hatchets, arrows, and dynamite causing big-ass explosions. All this is followed up by a small revelation of Chisolm’s character which explains a few things…but at that point the horse has already left the barn. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is a shallow and bland film which not only makes zero effort to feel authentic, but has no grasp on what can make Westerns so great.


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