Antoine Fuqua’s “The Magnificent Seven” is a big, silly buddy action film set in the old west. A racially diverse crew of mercenaries takes on a racist, corrupt capitalist that’s keeping an innocent town hostage. While far from great it manages to be a fun and ridiculous ‘b’ movie, thanks mostly in part to its cast, which includes big names like Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke and Chris Pratt.
When I first saw promos for “The Magnificent Seven” I said to myself: “that film is going to live or die based on the cast” and by and large I was right. The screenplay by Nic Pizolatto and Richard Wenk is simple and straightforward, predictable the entire way through and containing a lot of corny dialogue. A final piece of voiceover narration is a hoot to say the least. In the opening sequence we’re introduced to the villainous Bartholomew “Bart” Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, hamming it up big time) who’s essentially taking over the town of Rosewood so he can mine it for gold. From there, Emma (Haley Bennett) and Teddy (Luke Grimes) set off to find help in the form of bounty hunter Chisolm (Washington).
Then we watch as the rest of the seven are accumulated along the way. There’s gunslinger/gambler Josh Faraday, (Pratt) former Confederate Sharp Shooter/legend Goodnight Robicheaux, (Hawke) his friend and business associate Billy Rocks, (Byung-hun Lee) the outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). And finally we have the Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) and the mountain man Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio. After a few days of riding the group reaches Rosewood where they have eight days to militarize the town and fight Bart’s 200-man army.
That’s pretty much it as far as narrative is concerned and it all unfolds in a very neat and slick manner. There’s an action beat every five minutes or so with a minimum of five people getting killed, (although thanks to the PG-13 rating none of those casualties have any blood spewing out of them) which admittedly can get tedious and repetitive after a while.
Thankfully, the cast makes this thin, action heavy movie worthwhile. I’m not going to say these are fully dimensional characters that go through major character arcs but much like in “Star Trek Beyond” the group is charismatic and entertaining enough that you enjoy spending time with them. And they know what kind of movie they’re in--meaning they don’t take their roles too seriously. Washington is his usual confident, calculated tough guy. At this point in his life all he has to do is show up in a movie and he’s immediately the coolest guy there. Meanwhile, Chris Pratt is playing his character from “Guardians of the Galaxy” if that character decided to do a silly (but knowingly silly) impression of a Western gunslinger. Multiple times he squints his eyes like a junior Clint Eastwood. D’Onofrio may be the biggest surprise of the film, playing a deranged but unexpectedly sweet and gentle mountain man and Hawke is amusing as a washed up frontier celebrity. I do wish Bennett was given more to do; even though it’s basically Emma’s idea to put the group together there are long stretches of film where she’s absent without explanation.
It also helps that Fuqua doesn’t seem to be taking “The Magnificent Seven” very seriously either. The movie is clogged with cheesy Western clichés; intense staring followed by gun duels, dramatic walking down dusty streets while pedestrians look on, and lots of gun twirling. All that’s missing are rogue tumbleweeds. At times it verges on parody; during one scene, Faraday uses a card trick to get out of being killed by two angry gamblers. After the melodramatic schmaltz that was “Southpaw” it’s nice to see Fuqua tackle something so unhinged and campy in tone. However, “Magnificent Seven” runs into trouble when it slows down and tries to be serious. Material involving Robicheaux’s post war stress and Chisolm’s secret, deep seeded motive for taking the job are underdeveloped and feel like they were ripped from a completely different movie.
There’s little in the way of conflict amongst the group. Outside of the usual tough guy ribbing they all seem to be fine with one another and the high-chance-of-death nature of the job. If the group was strictly made up of white males I think this would be more of a flaw but the fact that the group is racially diverse makes the lack of conflict oddly refreshing. I mean, we’re talking about a situation where a white mountain man (whose reputation is based on killing hundreds of Native Americans) is fighting side by side with a Comanche warrior with no tension, or an African American bounty hunter who immediately commands respect when he enters a new town and as the group’s leader.
While the Seven are aware of their racial differences it’s never a significant conflict in the narrative. They see each other as equals, as fellow mercenaries and associates doing a job. Their enemy is Bart, not each other. And that awareness allows them to be a cohesive, well oiled unit. It’s not the most thorough examination of race but it’s welcome in an otherwise extremely goofy action movie.