Thursday, September 22, 2016

Review: "The Magnificent Seven"

“The Magnificent Seven” is a thoroughly enjoyable Western shoot-em-up that really has no purpose for existing. It’s a remake of the 1960 classic that itself is an Americanized version of a greater film, Japan’s “Seven Samurai.” But the basic tale has even deeper roots: a band of castoffs and deplorable is thrown together for a noble purpose in service to something greater than themselves.

So we watch this iteration of the familiar folklore, knowing full well what’s going to go down. There are no surprises to be unearthed, only admiration for the craftsmanship of the filmmakers and some finely drawn characters courtesy of the cast.

This is not the first rodeo together for director Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington (“Training Day”), and their films always seem to have a hum of energy about them. There are no dull patches, though we don’t delve into the backstories of the seven gunmen too much, or the villain who besets them.

It is 1879 in the tiny mining town of Rose Creek somewhere in California. The opener is a slam-banger in which sneering robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) kills most of the tougher men in town and demands the rest of the farmers leave in exchange for $20 apiece for their plots. Sargaard brings a sort of feral sickliness to the man, a bit of Biblical brimstone married to some notions about capitalism that even Ayn Rand would find overly harsh.

It’s all designed to make us hate Bogue and his army of faceless mercenaries, and it does.

Haley Bennett plays Emma Cullen, wife to one of the murdered who takes it upon herself to find some hard men of their own to stand up to Bogue. The first she recruits is Sam Chisolm (Washington), who demonstrates his affinity with the six-shooter by waltzing into a saloon and taking out half the local miscreants.

Washington is obviously having fun with this role, the bounty hunter of dark deeds who carries a carefully hidden chip on his shoulder. Outfitted in black garb, black hat and black horse, he carries a classic sense of righteousness and a modern undertone of grievance. The scene where Chisolm emerges from the saloon with hands in the air while half the town has their guns on him, the only black man around, speaks silent volumes.

Next up is Josh Faraday, a smirking gambler played by Chris Pratt. He’s a self-described ladies’ man whom all the women turn their noses up at, though he’s fast with a gun and card tricks. I kept waiting for the movie to peel back more layers on him, but it never happens. Pratt gets a lot of the best one-liners, and milks them well.

The rest sort of blur together, as the movie hurries through the recruitment phase to get to the showdown.

Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) is a marksman whose accuracy made him a legend during the Civil War, but now the genteel Southerner seems to get by more on bluster than bullseyes. “Fame is a sarcophagus,” he opines over his whiskey, and he is overly fond of both his drink and his own voice.

His partner is Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), an Asian assassin of indeterminate origin who’s equally adept with guns and blades. Apparently Goodnight and Billy made some sort of pact to protect each other’s secrets, but they protect them too well.

Vincet D’Onofrio is an oddball bearcat of a mountain man, Jack Horne, a lonely former scalp-hunter who warbles in a high-pitched voice, saying nonsensical things that bemuse and befuddle his compatriots. He seems more than slightly teched, killing brutally but always seeking assurance that he is justified in doing so.

Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Martin Sensmeier are Vasquez and Red Harvest, rather generic warrior types of Mexican and Comanche heritage, respectively. Red Harvest at least gets some titular war paint to make him distinctive. Bogue has himself an evil Indian, so we just know it’s going to come down to a standoff with our good Indian.

The gunfight takes up almost the second half of the movie, and that’s the main attraction. It’s an orgy of choreographed PG-13-rated violence, in which blood flows after someone is shot but never spatters on impact. Our seven heroes manage to seem incredibly skilled but not superhuman. One guy gets shot full of arrows (bad Indian!) and we think he’s going to keep on coming, but… well, you’ll see.

If it’s possible to like a movie without really admiring it, that’s my take on “The Magnificent Seven.” I think the time and energy of cast and crew would’ve been better spent making any sort of original movie instead of remaking a remake. But the picture shoots straight.

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