There is a long held tenet in the high stakes industry of document duplication that copies of copies tend to degrade so much that their visual fidelity can become unrecognizable from the original. It’s not always the case that such wisdom transfers to other mediums, but if it can be applied to the world of film, Akira Kurosawa’s seminal epic Seven Samurai would certainly be the test case. A worldwide success upon its release in 1954, the tale of seven warriors fighting against impossible odds caught the eye of acclaimed director John Sturges, who traded in katanas for revolvers, porting the story to the wild west with 1960’s The Magnificent Seven. Now, a scant 56 years later (with a quick revival in the form of Pixar’s A Bug’s Life), the seven ride again with Antoine Fuqua behind the helm. Will this copy of a copy retain its original’s shape, or will it end up nothing more than a blurry facsimile?
One aspect with which this new Magnificent Seven follows in its predecessor’s footsteps is assembling a truly star-studded cast to bring in the crowds. Long time Fuqua leading man Denzel Washington takes the reins as Sam Chisholm, a bounty hunter drafted into service by a desperate mining town beset upon by a morally bankrupt robber baron (Peter Sarsgaard). Working for a pittance with questionable resources at his disposal, Chisholm does manage to recruit a motley crew of a cocksure gambler (Chris Pratt), a legendary marksman and Civil War vet (Ethan Hawke), his knife-wielding friend (Byung-hun Lee), an eccentric fur trapper (Vincent D’Onofrio), a Mexican outlaw (Manuel Garcia-Rufio) and a Comanche warrior (Martin Sensmeier). With only a week to arm and train a town of farmers and miners, including the precocious wife of a slain townsperson (Haley Bennett), the odds are long indeed.
It’s no surprise that Seven Samurai adapted well to the Western genre the first time Hollywood brought it to American shores. Cowboys and gunslingers are very much the American analogue to the samurai, lone fighters battling evil men on the outskirts of society, though those not as aware of the two films that preceded this iteration of the story might find a kinship with the Spartans of 300. There is a nobility to it all, with these bounty hunters and hired guns taking far below their standard pay purely because helping these poor souls is the right thing to do. It would be difficult to imagine a better avatar for this band of doomed gunmen than Washington, with such a massive screen presence and so much natural charisma that it’s easy to understand how he could convince six other men to face certain death at his side. But the character would not work on charisma alone; a complimentary steely resolve and intensity is equally important, something Washington feels just as at home conveying. Clad in black and often doused in shadow (and oh so sweaty; everyone glistens pretty much nonstop in this picture), there are times only his impossible white teeth are visible, curled into a smile or bared in anger. Washington isn’t really breaking any new ground here; he’s never been in a Western before (unless one were inclined to count the post-apocalyptic The Book of Eli), which seems strange considering how at home he is in the role. There isn’t a whole lot to his character, as these men are supposed to be strangers of a sort, but Washington brings enough to his performance to make Chisholm a compelling character.
His compadres bring the sort of energy generally expected from their past roles, but outside of one exception (which in some ways may not really be one), they don’t do much else. Chris Pratt still has that shaggy dog comedic charm and twinkle in his eye, but the script doesn’t give him a wealth of opportunities to be comic relief. Ethan Hawke has perfected acting mysterious and looking off in the middle distance. The exception is D’Onofrio, who is perhaps staying within his own comfort zone, but when his comfort zone leads to characters like Edgar in Men in Black or Carl in The Cell, there’s plenty of opportunity for the bizarre, which is exactly what we get in The Magnificent Seven. His Jack Horne comes barreling down from the mountains, a coonskin cap on his head and a beard like 1980’s Orson Welles (and a gut to match), speaking with this strange high register marble mouthed lilt that seems just as in need of subtitles as to lines in Spanish or Comanche. It’s a gambit of a performance, destined to delight and alienate in equal measure.
Along with Peter Sarsgaard’s mustache-twirling villain, it often seems like D’Onofrio is one of the few actors really embracing his role beyond going through the motions. It’s a good thing that the likes of Washington, Hawke and Pratt have a baseline level of engagement, as the script rarely allows them to stretch their talent beyond the familiar. This is perhaps The Magnificent Seven’s biggest weakness; its script doesn’t rise to the status of its cast. The screenplay credits belong to Richard Wenk (who worked with both Fuqua and Washington in writing The Equalizer) and True Detective scribe Nic Pizzolatto, and it doesn’t adequately gel into much of anything worthwhile. The character development isn’t quite there, and though the film has nearly two hours and twenty minutes of run time to play with, it has to spend quite a bit of that time on the climactic battle, leaving not enough real estate for all seven characters (not to mention the villain and the townspeople) to give them the emotional resonance they need when they find themselves imperiled in the third act. Seven Samurai had an extra 70 minutes of run time to establish its characters, and the difference between the quality of storytelling between the two is staggering.
This new Magnificent Seven does succeed when the final battle kicks off, turning the sleepy valley town into a hailstorm of bullets and fire. It is a bombastic third act, a sort of war in miniature played out over 40 minutes. Fuqua shoots the action with verve, and here more than the rest of the film, he manages to give each character his due, The emotional resonance isn’t quite there, mostly due to the spotty character development of the first two acts, but the moments still hit as pieces of cinematic force. It’s not quite enough though, as while the technical side of The Magnificent Seven rarely disappoints, the narrative side rarely enthralls. Those looking for a good time at the cinema who aren’t overly bothered by the story that backs up those good times should enjoy The Magnificent Seven well enough, but it’s tough to leave its legacy behind upon entering the theater. In practice, Fuqua’s update of the classic of the classic falls short, its lines too blurry and ill-defined to represent a faithful reproduction of its original.