It’s an old story, tried and true and not yet tired: that of an outsider, or several of them, coming to town to defeat evil and protect the innocent from the wicked. The Magnificent Seven is of course a remake of The Magnificent Seven, itself a remake of Seven Samurai, but it could just as easily be a remake or a reimagining or a reboot of Shane or Tombstone or High Noon or Rio Bravo or Open Range or any number of classic and modern westerns.
We open in the mining town of Rose Creek in the year 1879. A handful of townsfolk have gathered in a church to discuss the efforts of an evil mining corporation trying to annex their land. They are interrupted by the devilish Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who informs them that democracy, capitalism, and God are all in cahoots—so they better sell out while they still can. And if they won’t listen to God, maybe they’ll listen to guns: Bogue burns down the church and slaughters the menfolk who dare voice opposition to his acquisitions.
A short time later, Rose Creek resident Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) comes across lawman Chisolm (Denzel Washington) as he takes down a bounty. He accedes to her plea for help and sets about rounding up a band of rogues who will work for little pay and don’t mind going up against a land baron with an army of Pinkerton-style mercenaries.
Chisolm racks up an amusingly diverse crew: cowbro Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt); the southern dandy Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his knife-fighting Korean buddy Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee); Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo); mountain man/son of the soil Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio); and the face-painted, raw-deer-kidney-eating native American Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). These wily rascals will need to set aside their differences if they’re going to protect the good people of Rose Creek from the rapacious capitalists at their doorstep.
The bunch is motley but entertaining, and much of The Magnificent Seven’s charm derives from the group’s interactions. Washington and Pratt radiate charisma, while the eternally youthful Hawke, between this film and Boyhood, which took 12 years to make, is easing into being typecast as a middle-aged dirt bag. D’Onofrio plays Horne with an odd but amusing high pitched squeak, a vocal tic that serves as a stark contrast to his bearlike frame.
My largest complaint regards the two big action sequences that take place once the Seven get to town. There’s little sense of space, and as a result the scene sometimes feels chaotic—simultaneously cluttered and somehow too spread out. Antoine Fuqua, typically a very solid director of set pieces (the first act of Olympus Has Fallen contains one of the great action sequences of the last decade, and The Equalizer’s work in small spaces was extremely effective), doesn’t quite seem to have a handle on how these sorts of gunfights should go down.
You can understand why the studio would want the unearned brand awareness that comes with a classic title. But you would also be forgiven for growing weary of the fact that even the most generic of plots must be tied to previously produced properties. The new Magnificent Seven is probably not quite as good as the old Magnificent Seven and certainly not as good as Seven Samurai, but it’s based on a surefire structure from a long-lived genre. If you’re into this sort of thing, you’ll like it just fine.
The Magnificent Seven is also, at least in part, a reminder that rights flow not from an inkwell but the barrel of a gun. Fuqua and writers Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto almost fetishize the firearms in this film.
You see it in the way Bogue’s mercenaries enter the church hall wielding rifles and operating under color of law; their sheriff stars are illegitimate and their union soldier uniforms a grotesquerie, but it doesn’t matter when they’ve got guns and the townsfolk either don’t or aren’t willing to use their own. You hear it in lines like Faraday’s "I didn’t want to kill him; you shouldn’t have touched my guns," and when Bogue’s men tell the incoming septet, "Town’s got a ban on firearms" only to be gunned down moments later by heroes who refuse to disarm and leave themselves at the mercy of brigands. You feel it when a hapless pair of brothers display Horne’s rifle as a war trophy only to be literally stomped to death moments later by the man-mountain for daring touch the weapon upon which his initials are engraved.
You understand it best, perhaps, when a townsman says, "The spirit is willing, but these men aren’t killers." The reply? "Most aren’t until they’re staring down the barrel of a gun."