It should, in all likelihood, surprise absolutely no one that the very first Western I ever laid eyes on was, naturally, Back to the Future Part III. A fanboy of the sci-fi trilogy since day one, I highly enjoyed the film, but also came to appreciate the style & photography of the Western setting which, when coupled with the brief Billy the Kid sequence in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, would serve as a foundation for future films I would later see set in The Old West. Ignoring the obvious fact that both movies involved time travel, I immediately found myself a fan of the Western genre, even when it came in the form of an overlooked sequel to An American Tail.
Antoine Fuqua has enjoyed a career spanning nearly two decades as a director, with an arc that’s ranged from successful to underrated thanks to titles such as 2001’s outstanding Training Day, the irresistibly fun 2013 Die Hard clone Olympus Has Fallen, and last year’s gritty, emotional Southpaw. One again paired with Denzel Washington, the man who received the Oscar for Best Actor thanks to his performance in Training Day, Fuqua has brought to screens a remake of 1960’s The Magnificent Seven, itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 epic Seven Samurai. The story of Rose Creek, a small town threatened by a ruthless prospector, Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) and his minions, Fuqua’s remake follows Denzel Washington’s bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), a mysterious lawman hired by the recently widowed Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) to exact revenge on the aforementioned baddies who are both responsible for the cold blooded murder of her husband as well as the decimation of Rose Creek, a town that sits atop a vast deposit of gold. To assist in his efforts, Chisolm sets about recruiting a team of n’er-do-wells who just might possess the gunslinging skills necessary to defend Rose Creek, one that includes, among others, gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), former fellow bounty hunter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), and tracker Jack Hume (Vincent D’Onofrio).
Where The Magnificent Seven succeeds is in the look of the film, and the incredible soundtrack. Every gunfight, especially the final climactic battle, builds nicely to a skillfully edited collection of shots, a scene where the titular Seven train the townspeople to defend themselves delivers some nice levity, and the breathtaking landscapes & dusty towns that would fit in nicely with any classic Western are accompanied by James Horner’s final score before his untimely death last year. One of my favorite composers since youth, I was immensely saddened by his passing, but also pleased to learn that his final work would see the light of day posthumously-in this case, he wrote the music for Fuqua and presented it to the director as a gift not long before the plane crash that would take his life. The soundtrack he provides for the film echoes much of his previous work-his trademark Field of Dreams-esque layered strings & The Rocketeer-esque horns are full of emotion, a faraway trumpet recalls Battle Beyond the Stars, a snare drum reminds us of Apollo 13 and the closing number is an incredibly fitting epitaph for a great man. The original Magnificent Seven theme is present throughout the entire score as well, whether in the form of some thunderous percussion, as a quick motif layered on top of whatever music happens to be playing at the moment, or during the credits.
Where the film fails is, unfortunately, in nearly every other area. The script and cast fail to complement one another, despite the talent involved-an opening scene at a church in Rose Creek is filled with unnecessarily shouted lines that would be more at home in a high school level performance of The Crucible than a high-profile Hollywood production. Badly written dialogue clogs up the screenplay, the occasional stabs at humor are short-lived, and characters uttering expository lines find their way, sometimes via unintentionally hilarious means, into the background of certain scenes as well. Speaking of hilarity, one is bound to find shades of funny in the exaggerated manner that numerous characters die, or simultaneously be confused by the hard-to-follow scenes where the team is assembled. Furthermore, any moments of action are book-ended by endless stretches of boring, needlessly drawn-out plot development that comes off more as a time to use the restroom than a time to be paying attention. The main characters themselves are all clichés we’ve seen many, many times over-the shadowy Man In Black (Washington), the sleazy rogue (Pratt), the slickster with a shady past (Hawke), and some of the character introductions are a bit botched as well, with D’Onofrio’s taking the gold medal in a bizarre scene that sees him lumbering towards the men who left him for dead, spouting off gibberish in a costume akin to Santa Claus following a visit to The Alamo. Each character also gets a backstory, some of which are vague at best and others of which are held off being revealed until the last possible minute. It all plays like an old-timey Suicide Squad, complete with scenes where the characters use self-deprecating verbiage to describe themselves while staring blankly at one another before walking menacingly in a straight line towards the camera. All that’s missing is a beam of energy shooting up towards the heavens, though that could be metaphorically compared to the now-lost potential of this film, rising up from the streets of Rose Creek in an effort to escape this dreadful mess.
Circling back to the cast, it’s a shame to see such outstanding actors waste their abilities on such a lackluster film, or it could simply be a lack of trying on their part-either way, the film reeks of disappointment in this regard, with Haley Bennett the standout as the broken, revenge-happy Emma Cullen in a role that’s reminiscent of Hailee Steinfeld’s in 2010’s True Grit. Peter Sarsgaard, an actor I’ve appreciated since his underrated performance as Charles “Chuck” Lane in 2003’s Shattered Glass, plays the handlebar-mustachioed bad guy as full of the now-overused bland villainous formula as possible, one again proving that, despite the caliber of his abilities, this role along with his confusing take on Hector Hammond in 2011’s ridiculous Green Lantern, seemingly prove that he simply can’t play convincing enemies very well. Plus, although Manuel Garcia-Rulfo attempts to hold his own as team member Vasquez, his efforts are negated by Ethan Hawke, essentially playing a pastiche of his role in 1998’s The Newton Boys, though it is nice to see him back alongside his Training Day co-star Washington.
It’s hard to recommend a movie with such cast and writing issues, but the cinematography, fight scenes and James Horner’s work do help. I still wouldn’t suggest going out of one’s way to see The Magnificent Seven, and would absolutely point in the direction of iTunes to take in Horner’s score independent of the film itself.
Magnificent, it most certainly is not.