Courtesy MGM

The Ambivalent Seven

The remake of the ’60s Western classic is enjoyable but half-hearted.

There are, I understand, people who can drive around a mesa in the American Southwest and come upon a vast, stunning expanse of pure Western landscape and not hear the music from The Magnificent Seven in their heads. Sad, but true. The catchiness and ubiquity of Elmer Bernstein’s thrumming music (which Marlboro licensed for their TV campaign peddling a manly, nicotine-loaded lifestyle) is so definitive it instantly summons up the Old West—or at least the cinematic version—in its first few beats. That music is the Western movie.

Bernstein’s score is amusingly hinted at during the remake of The Magnificent Seven, but you’ll have to wait until the end credits for a full nostalgic airing of the main theme. The original music is too heroic and unconflicted for a 21st-century Western, which Antoine Fuqua’s new film certainly is: Multicultural in its casting and pointedly political in its choice of bad guy, The Magnificent Seven is a 2016 movie all the way. In fits and starts, it also manages to be a pretty enjoyable Western. Its status as a retread need not automatically disqualify it; John Sturges’ 1960 hit was itself a remake, of Akira Kurosawa’s world-beating masterpiece Seven Samurai. The new film retains the shape of the story: A bounty hunter named Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington) is hired by the citizens of a besieged small town. Will he defend them from a ruthless businessman (Peter Sarsgaard) whose predations include cold-blooded murder?

Of course he will, if he can hire six gunmen to help. Joining first is a gambler (Chris Pratt)—introduced with a Clint Eastwood cheroot clenched between his teeth—who needs to get his horse out of hock. In this film the Guardians of the Galaxy star is the go-to player for comedy, of which there is a surprising amount. Chisholm also snags a Mexican outlaw (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo); a former Confederate sharpshooter (Ethan Hawke) and his Asian knife-throwing pal (Byung-hun Lee, from I Saw the Devil) and a Comanche loner (Martin Sensmeier). Filling out the septet is a burly, Bible-quoting crackpot (Vincent D’Onofrio, just flat out going for it); he needs at least two more scenes to really reach his potential.

The script, by Richard Wenk and True Detective mastermind Nic Pizzolatto, has some intriguing moments, but its mode is extremely broad. Even the character names practically need quotation marks around them: Hawke’s shellshocked dandy is named Goodnight Robicheaux, Sarsgaard’s cartoonishly sneering villain is Bartholomew Bogue, and Sensmeier’s lethal Indian is called Red Harvest. We have entered into Marvel Comics territory here. But these heroes are not super, and they can be killed—a reminder of the mortal underpinning that superhero movies consistently lack. A couple of the demises are among the movie’s best moments, in fact.

Fuqua worked with Denzel Washington on Training Day and The Equalizer, so it’s a little surprising that—gratifying as it is to see a black-clad Washington striding down Main Street for the showdown—his star power doesn’t pop more here. But then Fuqua doesn’t have a great nose for movie-movie pleasure. The 1960 film is very, very slow, but Sturges understood the importance of juicing up the character introductions and assigning identifying traits (nobody ever forgets James Coburn’s entrance as a knife-tosser). In the remake, those bread-and-butter scenes feel fumbled or half-hearted. In genre terms, The Magnificent Seven doesn’t get the Western the way recent offerings such as The Homesman or Slow West or even the zombie-riffic Bone Tomahawk do.

Some of the pictorial views are fine (the location shooting around Baton Rouge has something to do with the novelty of certain landscapes, I assume), and if you like to see galloping horses and men with shotguns tumbling from saloon balconies, that’s here. So some of the once-common pleasures of watching a Western are in place, even though I too often found myself thinking, “Ah, you almost nailed that moment—almost.” Close, but no cheroot. The Magnificent Seven. Rated PG-13. Opens in multiple theaters Fri., Sept. 23.

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