Four stars. Rated PG-13, and somewhat generously, for relentless violence and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.23.16
This premise has been bulletproof ever since Akira Kurosawa introduced it, back in 1954.
It’s not merely a great set-up for an action epic; it also plays to our idealistic belief that everybody — no matter how bad their behavior — yearns for an opportunity to become heroic in the eyes of people not familiar with their past deeds. A chance at redemption, and generous self-sacrifice.
Nor does it, in director Antoine Fuqua’s muscular remake of 1960’s American adaptation of Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai. With Denzel Washington top-lining a cast of scene-stealers every bit as engaging as the characters they play, and some narrative tweaks that make their shot at moral salvation virtually impossible — or is it? — this new Magnificent Seven delivers on the promise of the adjective in its title.
That said — and acknowledging the narrative adjustments made by scripters Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk, in keeping with 21st century sensibilities — all concerned should be ashamed of themselves, for failing to better acknowledge the core story concept by Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni. Pizzolatto and Wenk didn’t concoct this concept out of thin air, and it’s annoying to see them claim sole screen credit during the opening titles, as if the entire inspiration were theirs, and theirs alone.
(But I digress...)
The story begins in the tiny post-Civil War community of Rose Creek — a truly stunning set built by production designer Derek Hill and his crew — where the townsfolk have been invaded by ruthless carpetbagger Bartholomew Brogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who has established a destructive gold-mining operation only a few hundred yards from the local church.
Brogue and his hired thugs have made life unbearable, but that isn’t sufficient; he has decided to destroy the community in order to expand his mining efforts ... and he couldn’t care less that this means driving hard-working farmers off their properties. In a prologue that sets new standards for heinous behavior, Brogue and his men hijack a town meeting and make their point brutally clear.
Do we loathe Brogue, in the space of a few swift minutes? Oh my, yes; rarely will you find a villain played with such callous élan. Sarsgaard is coldly, chillingly vile: a truly memorable performance.
Some of the townsfolk depart, for uncertain futures. Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), made of sterner stuff, rides off to nearby communities, in search of “good men” who might rally to Rose Creek’s aid. She lucks into Sam Chisolm (Washington), a calm, capable peacekeeper who always establishes his law enforcement bona fides, reassuring people that he’s a “duly sworn warrant officer from Wichita, Kansas, and a licensed peace officer in Arkansas, Indian Territory, Nebraska and seven other states.”
Washington’s dry delivery of that line, upon repetition, always draws a knowing smile. Today’s audiences can readily appreciate why a lone black man, in frontier days, would hasten to establish such credentials.
Chisolm clearly has a back story — we see an occasional flash of something in Washington’s cold eyes — but such details are withheld until the moment of maximum dramatic impact.
And although Chisolm initially rebuffs Emma’s request, he’s unexpectedly moved when — by way of payment — she offers a satchel that contains “everything we have.”
Nobody’s ever offered everything, Chisolm repeats, reflectively ... and we see that this, somehow, evokes memories of that same something.
Emma has chanced upon Chisolm while he conducts his sworn duty: a “routine” event that involves minor assistance from gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), a good-natured braggart with trickster instincts and a deceptively fast draw. It’s pretty much Pratt’s Peter Quill, from Guardians of the Galaxy, albeit with a gun belt and a horse. No problem: Pratt is as smoothly entertaining here, as he was there.
Between them, during the next few days, Chisolm and Faraday gather the rest of their motley crew:
• Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), a sharpshooter and Civil War veteran left psychologically scarred by those experiences, and haunted by the demons of the people he killed;
• Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), Goodnight’s friend and confidant, and gracefully lethal with an arsenal of knives and other sharp weapons;
• Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a career outlaw who genuinely loves gunfighting, and accepts this offer as a means of removing himself from Chisolm’s bounty list;
• Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), an immense mountain man who’ll grab anything at hand, to batter an opponent, but who also possesses an oddly spiritual soul; and
• Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), a lone Comanche estranged from his tribe, who regards this opportunity as a means of regaining honor. (In that respect, Red Harvest is closest in spirit to the samurai warriors in Kurosawa’s film.)
They’re all well-sculpted characters, although I must confess a particular fascination for Red Harvest, played with quiet dignity by Sensmeier. He brings noble sensitivity to the archetype of displaced warrior.
Pizzolatto and Wenk shape their storyline with the traditional three acts: introducing the Seven; bringing them to Rose Creek, where they face the uphill struggle of mobilizing the community; and — of course — the final battle royale. The first act is confined mostly to spotlighting the skills that attract Chisolm to each man, but the film’s heart comes with the middle chapter, as they all interact with the townsfolk.
Fuqua takes his time, his 132-minute film allowing for lengthy character development in this middle portion. Pratt has the best one-liners, but each of these men — even Red Harvest — gets a chance to display some gallows humor. Horne is an amusing puzzle, given to quasi-mystical declarations and non-sequiturs; Billy Rocks’ apparent inscrutability is at odds with the attentive compassion he exhibits with Robicheaux.
Then there’s Emma, handled with such pluck by Bennett (who also teamed with Fuqua and Washington in 2014’s The Equalizer). Emma is an inspiring character — literally — and Bennett plays her with persuasive conviction. She’s the sort of woman who must’ve been present in the wild West: as strong, stubborn and spirited as any man.
Cinematographer Mauro Fiore frames the story’s various tableaus for maximum impact, whether working inside a darkened saloon, within Rose Creek’s short but canyon-like streets, or conveying a sense of unspoiled grandeur to the surrounding countryside. A few traveling tracking shots are literally breathtaking, as when we swoop alongside a massive line of galloping horses and riders.
As far as the film’s exhilarating soundtrack is concerned, well, therein lies yet another tale. Celebrated composer James Horner was working on the score — having completed seven key themes — when he died, quite unexpectedly, in June 2015. The work was completed by Horner’s friend and colleague Simon Franglen, and the collaboration is seamless; the sweeping orchestral anthems are powerful throughout, as are the quieter, tender cues reserved for poignant moments.
No lie: Fuqua builds his film to an impressively emotional climax.
But the big issue, at least in minds of older viewers, concerns the iconic main theme that Elmer Bernstein wrote for the 1960 film: a piece of music as essential to this mythic saga as Lalo Schifrin’s title theme for Mission: Impossible, or Henry Mancini’s droll swing theme for The Pink Panther, or ... well, you get the idea.
And so, the question: Do Fuqua, Horner and Franglen reference Bernstein’s theme?
You betcha. And at just the right moment.
Between this new Magnificent Seven and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, perhaps we can hope for a greater revival of Westerns. That would be nice; it remains a (currently) undersung genre that provides an excellent backdrop for all sorts of stories.