Fans of the Western genre have been given plenty of reasons to rejoice in recent years as modern filmmakers use their success to explore a genre that hasn’t always been given a fair shot from modern moviegoers. After the success of James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma and the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, it seemed more possible to explore modern takes on the classics, which brings us to Antoine Fuqua and his The Magnificent Seven remake, which marks his third teaming with Denzel Washington after Training Day and The Equalizer.
The original 1960 Western of the same name was itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, and all of those the original Japanese screenwriters are given a story credit with the screenplay written by Richard Wenk (The Equalizer) and Nic Pizzolato (True Detective). But Fuqua’s movie is a remake in name and tone only, as everything else has been changed.
As the film opens, we’re introduced to the small mining town of Rose Creek that’s being terrorized by Bart Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) and his men, trying to get the townspeople to give up their land cheap. Their latest confrontation ends with a handful of locals dead and the church being set ablaze, so Emma Cullen (Hayley Bennett), the widow of one of the fallen, sets out to find someone to help save their town. She comes across lone gunman Chisolm (Denzel Washington), who agrees to put together a group of outcasts to help them, including the outlaw Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt) and five others outlaws.
Wisely, most of the names have been changed from the earlier film, although their general roles in the group are similar. Besides Washington and Pratt, the most interesting characters are Ethan Hawke’s Goodnight Robicheaux—a Confederate sharpshooter still suffering from PTSD—and Vincent D’Onofrio’s Jack Horne, an outlandish frontiersman who doesn’t seem to give a crap about anything. These character actor roles are what bring so much to the film as an ensemble piece with plenty of enjoyable character interplay.
The screenplay is suitably solid with each character getting their moments—even the lesser characters played by Byung-Hun Lee and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo–but as might be expected, Pratt gets the best one-liners as a gunman who does card tricks to distract the men he’s about to kill. Westerns tend to be gruelingly macho affairs, so the inclusion of Hayley Bennett’s character as an active participant once bullets start flying gives the film a welcome change from the genre. While Sarsgaard makes a great villain, his character vanishes for a good chunk of the movie as we’re introduced to individual heroes.
Fuqua goes for a deliberately slow build-up, similar to the pacing of Kurosawa’s original movie, as it sets up the last act gun battle where our heroes and the under-skilled townspeople must face Bogue’s seemingly insurmountable army and a gattling gun that does more damage than most of Bogue’s men.
The Magnificent Seven serves as further evidence of how Antoine Fuqua has improved as a filmmaker since making Brooklyn’s Finest in 2009, delving into different genres and mastering them all. Any trepidations about the film’s slow pace are more than made up for with the final battle.
Even so, when we’re talking about a genre in which filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Ti West are doing such unique and original things like last year’s The Hateful Eight and the upcoming In a Valley of Violence, Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven seems too steeped in tradition, which at times, makes it feel like old hat. Western fans will surely love every minute of it, but it might not have the lasting impact it might have otherwise.
The Magnificent Seven opens nationwide on Friday, Sept. 23.
*This review was originally published from the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 8, 2016.