Film Review: The Magnificent Seven (2016)

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Denzel's Slingers

The problem with having the word “magnificent” in your title, is that it’s a real hostage to fortune. When your movie’s a remake of a genre classic it becomes even more problematic. The take has to be fresh, the sensibility modern, but more than that, the movie has to be, well, you know.

Antonie Fuqua, edgy and popular on the back of his recent Equalizer reimagining, has once again been hired to inject some grit and intensity into old material. But whereas his previous collaboration with leading man of choice, Denzel Washington, allowed him to cut loose, the expensive cast assembled here, plus the risk from parasitically raiding a property, like an army of bandits, that no longer has strong audience appeal (the last version’s 54 years old, in a largely dead genre), forces him to sanitise the violence to get an audience friendly rating. Maximising your return means casting the likes of Chris Pratt and being brutal without being bloody. Thus, the new Magnificent Seven positions itself as a hard frontier movie, but one forced to pull its punches.

There’s nothing inherently fatal about this, of course; the screen need not be awash with blood, Sam Peckinpah style, but if the movie’s going to be modern in the worst sense of the word – i.e. self-censoring in the interests of box office not content, then it must deliver in all other areas, and here Fuqua’s movie often falls off the horse.

The cast, particularly Washington, command attention and are good in underwritten roles, but Magnificent Seven looks to be a movie disjointed by an editor over enamoured with non-linear editing choices. There’s the sense the film’s been cut a number of different ways, with the final version reeking of studio interference. We wonder, for example, why, when Washington’s men know they have just a week to prepare for a visit from Peter Sarsgaard’s bastard businessman and village pillager-in-chief, they wait 3 full days before beginning to plan how the town of Rose Creek can be fortified and defended. It didn’t take that long in Blazing Saddles. Prior to this we’ve seen the seven train the simple townsfolk in gunmanship, but it’s likely this is altered chronology, and inadvertently creates a logic-fart, in-movie.

We’re similarly suspicious of Ethan Hawke’s apparent yellow streak, peppered throughout the story, but not developed at moments of peak interest. The movie’s more interested in going off on tangents, adding to the sense of shapelessness, rather than capitalising on its areas of human interest. Perhaps there’s more of Hawke and Washington’s civil war history on the cutting room floor, or indeed, a few more scenes that might hint at Washington’s historic beef with Sarsgaard – a last minute addition that retrospectively, and infuriatingly, involves the lead in the movie’s revenge plot. But if these scenes were shot they’re not in the finished film, and what is, though just about hanging together, is never quite as taunt or involving as it might have been.

Fuqua has a great eye for composition, and there’s a polish to his cinematography; he’s really one of those “you can see the grain” merchants; but this isn’t partnered with a strong signature style. When the third act raid on the town comes, later than we’d like, it lacks a certain visual cohesion – the editor again in frenzied control, rather than the director – and it’s here that a real stylist could have added the bombast and indulgence behind the camera that the scenario demanded. One thinks of what Brian De Palma at his peak might have done with the Rose Creek shoot ‘em up and laments that large budgets and studio interference are today conspiring to kill movies like this one.

Magnificent Seven is the final movie for composer James Horner, who sadly died in 2015. It’s not a great epitaph unfortunately, as the familiar cues, which Horner allegedly composed before a frame was shot, such was his enthusiasm for the project, remind us that he was, on a bad day, a tired self-plagiarist, whose best work was long behind him. Seven’s score plays like a Horner temp track, rather than an original composition, and has the unintended consequence of adding to the movie’s air of stale regurgitation. A copy of a copy in all respects, then.

Directed by: Antoine Fuqua

Country: US

Year: 2016

Running Time: 133 mins

Certificate: 12A for Ethan Hawke still looking essentially as he did in Explorers, having no hint what the movie's truly about until the end, and a scene with cowboys eating beans.

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