I have finally, finally, had a chance to watch the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven. Thank you, Netflix. Thank you, sleeping child. Thank you, not caring about getting anything else done this evening. The house is a bit of a mess but there’s a cleaner coming tomorrow and I know mum would understand. She doesn’t tidy when I fly either.
It was magnificent.
Now, I know the film got mixed reviews because, as a remake, there is nothing terribly original about it. It’s moderately predictable. There is little in the story line that stands out, that hasn’t been done before. (It is, in fact, a remake of a remake.)
But the cast…. oh the cast…. Magnificent.
It’s clear they all had fun. It’s a lad’s sort of film. The single prominent female role does not interact much with the men. There is blessedly no attempt at romancing the newly bereaved widow hell bent on revenge (I wouldn’t put it past Hollywood to try it). The director, Antoine Fuqua, is said to have wanted to remake the film because the subject of terrorism and tyranny is still relevant. This is perhaps, extra prescient given that the planning and production for this film would have begun well before the heralding of the new era in American politics.
I have passing memories of watching some of the old Magnificent Seven movies. Mostly, I remember that everyone *gasp* dies and Yul Brynner’s distinctive walk. I am gratified to know that Denzel Washington never watched the original westerns. There’s no attempt to mimic or intentionally stay so far away from the iconic 1960s lead so as to render his character awkward, but there’s just something about having a gun on a man’s hip that clearly brings out a swagger in everyone. However, although Denzel Washington’s acting is as impeccable as ever, his character is too restrained, too self-contained, to really carry the film on it’s own. Even at the very end when he is at his most vulnerable emotionally to the villain in the final mano-el-mano scene inside the burned out church, he is too leashed. Too in control of himself.
The rest of the cast clearly didn’t have such inhibitions. The original cast for the remake is rumoured to have been all white. This didn’t sit well with Fuqua, who wanted to portray the West in its full diverse glory. The result was interesting and eclectic, though very close to falling prey to a sense of token-ism.
Chris Pratt as Joshua Faraday (the Irishman) simply runs away with the film. Vincent D’Onofrio as Jack Horne (the religious trapper) helps him. The banter and rivalry between Pratt’s character and Manuel Garcia-Ruflo’s character (Vasquez, the Mexican outlaw) felt completely natural and something you could encounter in any bar today, only with more guns and cowboy hats. Ethan Hawke (haunted Confederate veteran) does a pretty decent job of mentally unraveling as the film progresses, though of course his return in the final fight is the most predictable thing ever. His friendship with Billy Rocks (the Asian knife fighter), played by Byung-hun Lee, initially feels very stereotyped, though by the end it is given enough depth to forgive the flaws. And I was honestly very intrigued by Martin Sensmeier’s performance as Red Harvest (the Comanche warrior). I don’t know enough to know whether the character as portrayed swings more toward the authentic or the caricature end of the spectrum, but Sensmeier certainly imbued him with a quiet form of dignity and stature.
Honestly, Pratt and D’Onofrio though are the real heroes. Faraday is clearly the comedic relief in the film, but he owns it in his very own special Pratt-like way. He is charming and roguish one second, and seriously deadly the next. His humour enhances the dire circumstances of the main conflict, not lessens it or makes light of it. And though I kept looking forward to seeing D’Onofrio throughout the beginning of the film, when he did finally catapult his way into his first scene, his appearance and his voice were so surprising I was simply poleaxed. D’Onofrio’s versatility is on full display.
D’Onofrio and Pratt also dominate the movie with their parallel death scenes. Horne is one of the first of the Seven to die at the hands of the protagonist’s second-in-command, also a Native American. As a trapper and a former scalper, I think there is meant to be irony that his death comes at the hands of arrows and not bullets. And like the mightly mountain that he appears, Horne keeps moving, taking numerous hits before he is finally put down. There is a sense of waste nearly with his death as, although he saves one of the townfolk, he does not reach his target. He does not twitch at the last minute and fire a hidden weapon to kill his opponent. He sags into the earth and looks up at the sky, his face suddenly illuminated by sunshine. There is a sense that he is being welcomed by his family in the heavens. He has died at peace.
Faraday’s death is a similar suicidal gallop. He takes several hits and just won’t stop coming. At the end, he is on his knees, and instead of fighting, he tries lighting a final smoke. One of his opponents, perhaps in a sign of respect for Faraday’s courage, stays the hand of another shooter and offers Faraday a light before stepping up to put a final bullet in him just as Faraday slumps over. There is a sense that Faraday’s death is just as futile as Horne’s. He came so close and yet failed to achieve his purpose. But the gambler has one more card up his sleeve. Or more accurately, one more stick of dynamite, lit from the but of the cigarette. His kamikaze end is completely in character with the rest of Pratt’s performance – full of charm and surprise.
The film is light on intra-party tension. There was plenty of scope for friction which the film left uncovered, but honestly this is probably for the best. It gave the film focus and function without too much distraction. D’Onofrio, for example, hints that his character Jack Horne had family. Denzel Washington implies that Horne is known for scalping. This could have led to scenes of conflict between Horne and the Comanche warrior, but instead on the last night before the final battle Horne pays him respect and there is nothing but camaraderie. Similarly, Horne is mostly tolerant of Faraday’s gambling and talk of women other than a token protest. Faraday also less-than-subtly challenges the ex-confederate soldier but doesn’t push Goodnight Robicheaux to reveal his weakness in front of others. All the potential internecine fights are shut down before they’re allowed to flourish. They are not the focus of the film.
The focus is the clear sense of right and wrong, and it is not in the form of following the law, but about standing up for yourself and for those who can’t do it for themselves. The law in this film is, in fact, both good and evil, both pure and corrupt. Denzel Washington, as Sam Chisolm, is a warrant officer, an arm of the law in his own right. But he has no problem stripping the badge off the rightful-but-corrupt sheriff of Rose Creek. This is the classic Western setting – the law is your gun and your own sense of right and wrong.
And what I loved most about this film, other than the stellar cast, was the sense of timing. The jewel of the whole film is not even, in fact, the main show down at the end, but when the Seven first ride into Rose Creek and dispatch the 22 fighters the robber-baron Bogue left there after terrorising the residents at the start of the film. There is no rushing in this film the way so many action films these days do. The tension is drawn tight not from the violence and action itself but from the anticipation of it: The completely casual slouch of the cowboy on the side of the porch, completely at odds with his keen gaze on the key players, the wry grin of the surprise appearance of one of the good guys and the slow, almost sensual caress of their gun as they wait their turn for the action. The film’s best moments, are not in the fighting, but in between. It is in the very fine, tiny movements of each actor as they flesh out their hero’s personality. While Goodnight panics, Vasquez lightly prowls and Faraday practically looks like he’s doing a dance in and out of doorways with a grin. Horne bustles out like Norse berserker, slightly insane and dominating with his physical presence. This is not the fight where shit gets real, so they all still have their sense of optimism. They are fully in control. And they clearly had way too much fun filming it. I think I can watch that fight over and over and over and never get tired of it.
I had heard good things about the film and it definitely did not disappoint. It was ever better than I expected to be honest. True, it lacked any sense of originality to the overall plot. But it stuck firmly to the central tenets of its themes, did not stray too far into the personal lives of any single character to be distracting, and it did all that with superb acting. Sometimes a movie doesn’t need more than that. There is only so many ways the same story can be told. There is nothing wrong with retelling it as it was, but with a fresh set of class actors.
So as I said, magnificent.