“The Magnificent Seven”? No, that adjective still has to be reserved for the first two versions: Akiro Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” from 1954 and the English-language western John Sturges directed six years later, where the story moved to a Mexican village.
But this version, directed by Antoine Fuqua from a script by Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk, remains fairly faithful to the original concept while adding some twists. Call it the mighty entertaining “Seven,” and you’ll be right.
Fuqua pairs with Denzel Washington for the third and most satisfying time in this drama, set in fictional Rose Creek in 1879. Washington plays Sam Chisolm, a warrant officer hunting fugitives in Kansas and surrounding territories. A widow (Haley Bennett) hires him to gather gunslingers to fight off a corrupt mine owner, who has given Rose Creek an ultimatum: If homesteaders don’t sell their land and leave in three weeks, he’ll burn their houses and shoot survivors.
Chisolm rounds up a motley crew: an alcoholic Irish gambler with lightning hands (Chris Pratt), a former Confederate sharpshooter (Ethan Hawke) and his knife-hurling companion (Korean actor Byung-hun Lee), a grizzled old mountain man who used to kill Crow Indians (Vincent D’Onofrio), a Mexican outlaw (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and a Comanche (Martin Sensmeier) who rather improbably explains that tribal elders told him to “follow a different path.”
You can see this as an allegory for modern America, divided as we are these days by fear and suspicion. The former hunter of native Americans has to make peace with one. The black lawman and the white ex-officer of the Confederacy acknowledge each other’s abilities. A guy who demeans “spics” learns to fight alongside one, and an Asian immigrant – perhaps the least-respected person in the American West at that time – commands respect.
Fuqua and the writers can’t resist a few dull ideas. Eli Wallach’s bandit in the 1960 version had a sense of humor, but mine owner Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) becomes Satan incarnate, slaying women publicly to make a point. One hero is virtually unkillable. And the filmmakers exploit the tired trope of a character leaving before the action begins, then returning at a crucial moment. (What I wouldn’t give for someone who rides away and stays away!)
On the other hand, they avoid convention a lot of the time. The widow doesn’t have to find a new man among the septet, nor are these men fundamentally good people. You wouldn’t have a beer with them; they might steal your money, insult you past the breaking point, get drunk and gun you down.
In our post-Tarantino world, Fuqua shows remarkable restraint. The long, efficiently filmed battle doesn’t douse us in blood; for once, PG-13 is the proper rating for a violent film. The stirring score, left unfinished by the late James Horner and completed by Simon Franglen, pays homage to classic western themes while giving them more edge. Stay until the final credits, though, to hear a reprise of Elmer Bernstein’s 1960 music – the greatest western score ever.
The Magnificent Seven
☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Haley Bennett, Ethan Hawke
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Length: 132 minutes
Rating: PG-13 (extended and intense sequences of Western violence, and for historical smoking, some language and suggestive material)
Raleigh: Brier Creek, Carmike 15, Grande, IMAX Theatre at Marbles, Mission Valley, North Hills, Six Forks, Wakefield. Apex: Beaver Creek. Cary: CineBowl, Crossroads. Chapel Hill: Lumina, Silverspot, Timberlyne. Durham: Southpoint, Wynnsong. Garner: White Oak. Morrisville: Park West. Smithfield: Smithfield.