The Magnificent Seven
by Martin Dunlop
The good thing about an idea like The Magnificent Seven (or indeed Seven Samurai, the original 1954 Kurosawa samurai movie the idea is based on) is that it’s hard to screw up. To whit:
1. Somewhere a village is being persecuted by bad guys.
2. The villagers hire a group of misfit badasses to protect them.
3. The badasses come to the village and repel an initial attack by the bad guys.
4. The badasses have a moment’s celebration.
5. The bad guys bring their full force to bear in a final climatic battle to the finish.
It’s simple, orderly, and effective as an engine for driving drama. All of these things happen in The Magnificent Seven like clockwork, and - truth be told - it’s not the worst implementation of the form ever seen (not quite up to par with Pixar’s insect-starring take on the story, 1998’s A Bug’s Life) but in its familiarity, there’s still fatigue.
The problem starts with the titular Seven themselves. The leader is Denzel Washington as a grizzled bounty hunter with a woefully predictable tragic past. Chris Pratt is the second in command, a gunfighter with a gambling fixation whose actions are a little too genuinely unpleasant and violent, juxtaposed against Pratt’s scruffy charm. Ethan Hawke is the best served by the script as a genteel gold-toothed sharpshooter hiding a gnawing case of PTSD, but he’s the only one that seems to have been granted a proper character arc. Vincent D’Onofrio is a wheezing mountain man that the film has a lot of fun with in the fight scenes, bowling around like a big dog off its leash through every window and door in sight, but from a character point of view, he’s still under-served, and his background is never given any proper consideration. Byung hun-Lee is a knife-expert friend of Hawke’s who, like D’Onofrio, is given a lot to do when the bullets are flying and nothing to do in the script. And finally Comanche warrior Martin Sensmeir and Mexican outlaw Manuel Garcia-Rolfo are … in the movie.
So, all in all, I give it three Magnificents out of seven, and yet… when those bullets do start flying in an early fight scene, I noticed something interesting. I was starting to pay attention. When the characters mouths here opening and shutting, only cliches seemed to fall out, and not fun ones, but between D’Onofrio’s bulk and Byung-hun Lee’s acrobatics, and some for-real dangerous looking horse-riding stunts, the film really clicks. Director Antoine Fuqua is not really known for well-handled action (this is actually his second go at a Magnificent Seven-styled movie, having handled the unbearably po-faced Tears Of The Sun back in 2003) but he really has his eye on the ball here, and particularly the final battle sequence (a giant tactical multi-staged explosion-fest) grabs you where the dialogue can’t.
I haven’t even mentioned who the bad guys are. They don’t matter. Peter Saarsgard is an angry land owner who twitches a lot. I haven’t mentioned the actors playing the villagers. They also do not matter, particularly poor Haley Bennett, who gets one of the most thankless 'female in distres's roles I’ve seen in a long time. But when the first rifle cracks, and the horse’s hooves start pounding and the thumb pulls back the hammer on the six shooter… for a moment, everything’s alright.
The Magnificent Seven is out now.