Deciding to remake “The Magnificent Seven” with a fresh batch of movie stars is certainly no sin. John Sturges’ 1960 tome, itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s classic “Seven Samurai,” is a fun confection of star power and charismatic bravado, sure, but held in such high esteem probably more because of Elmer Bernstein’s iconic score than anything else. Plus, who doesn’t enjoy a ragtag group of outlaws banding together to defeat a powerful bully?
But director Antoine Fuqua doesn’t exactly elevate that now well-trod premise in this dutiful and solid rehashing of the seven gunmen who attempt to save a terrorized town, even if he does up the shoot-em-up action (and body count). Bernstein’s score is given a few nods throughout the film, but saved in full for the final credits. Thus, it’s left to the actors to carry us through the over two-hour running time.
You could do worse than putting it all in the capable hands of Denzel Washington, with some help from Chris Pratt. Washington, as the steely-eyed bounty hunter Sam Chisolm, is the de facto leader, the Yul Brynner of the group. His out-of-use heart starts beating again when the recently widowed Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) begs him to return to her small farming town of Rose Creek to save them from the terror of greedy industrialist Bartholomew Bogue, played with delicious, over-the-top menace by Peter Sarsgaard.
Bogue is running a mining operation nearby and wants their land, too. He’ll either pay the residents of Rose Creek an unfairly low price for it or force them to leave (already a less compelling idea than taking the food they’ve grown, but this “farming town” does very little farming anyway). Fuqua takes no time easing into the story, starting out with an all-out massacre in the town.
For about an hour, things are fairly fun as Chisolm recruits the other six. Pratt’s Josh Faraday is the first up — a bemused gambler with enemies to spare and a fondness for whiskey who signs up for the mission to try to win back his horse. They find a legendary Civil War vet Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his blade-wielding buddy Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee) – who gets to put his own spin on the memorable gun vs. knife duel.
There’s the bearlike, shell-shocked tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), the Mexican gunslinger Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and an exiled Native American, Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). It’s a delightfully diverse little group, but unfortunately the script, credited to “True Detective” creator Nic Pizzolatto and “The Equalizer” scribe Richard Wenk, doesn’t spend much time getting to know these men. What is there isn’t nearly clever, funny or insightful enough to make up for that. It felt like no one ever quite agreed on what the tone should be. Fun? Nihilistic? Folksy? Irreverent? Sincere? It’s all over the place and it’s not good. The actors do their best, but when even Pratt struggles to sell a joke, you know you’re in trouble.
All dialogue, however, gets drowned out eventually as the movie gives way to the extremely long and frustratingly illogical final showdown with a Marvel-sized body count that nonetheless provides some exhilarating moments for Washington, Pratt and a few others. The pieces are there but never quite come together. By the time Bernstein’s score plays and the credits start rolling, it’s a little too late to do anything besides make you even more nostalgic for what came before.
Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Haley Bennett, Matt Bomer, Vincent D’Onofrio, Peter Sarsgaard.
Director: Antoine Fuqua.
Screenwriters: Richard Wenk, Nic Pizzolatto.
An MGM/Columbia Pictures release. Running time: 132 minutes. Vulgar language, gun violence, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.