Sunday, September 25, 2016

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN - Swaggeringly Proficient

Cowboys were the original superhero. Before caped crusaders and super soldiers, before men of iron and gods and monsters, a costume was a wide-brimmed hat and a set of six-shooters. In fact, given the undeniable influence of Zorro on the creation of Batman, you could argue the cowboy as the a direct predecessor to the larger-than-life icons of our modern blockbuster cinema.

Now that masks and mutants rule the silver screen, it seems more than appropriate that, when tasked with remaking The Magnificent Seven, director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Olympus Has Fallen) approached it like a superhero movie that just happened to be set in the old west.

And it works.

Honestly, it's almost a shock that the director of Shooter and The Equalizer took so long to stop beating around the bush and just have the heroes of his film be literal cowboys. And while he's going for a more modern sensibility than something like Open Range or even Tombstone, Fuqua definitely knows what he's about. The film isn't an equal to Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, which inspired the original western adaptation (as well as scores of other films, including A Bug's Life and 13 Assassins), but the basic framework of the story is damn near impossible to screw up.

Set in 1879, The Magnificent Seven opens on Rose Creek, a town settled by simple farmers who are now being driven off their homes by a Bartholomew Bogue, a murderous mining baron with no regard for property rights and even less for the sanctity of human life. When they seek help, they find Denzel Washington as Sam Chisolm, a lawman with a quick hand and scarily cool temper. He's convinced by the recently widowed Emma Cullen (played by Haley Bennett) to stand and fight against Bogue's army of hired guns, but since the people of Rose Creek are farmers, not fighters, he goes looking for some reliable gun hands.

This is where the film starts riffing on the idea of colorful comic book characters as much as gunslingers - every one of the eponymous Seven have a personal gimmick, as well as filling in an appropriately multi-cultural 21st century version of the "posse." Aside from Washington's cooly competent warrant officer, you've got an Ethan Hawke as an ex-Confederate sniper, Vincent D'Onofrio a religious mountain man, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as a Mexican pistolero, Martin Sensmeier as a Comanche warrior, Byung-hun Lee as a Korean assassin, and Star Lord - I mean, Chris Pratt as a gambler. Everyone gets a signature introduction as well as a unique set of skills, and - like any good ensemble piece - there are plenty of personality quirks that either compliment or clash with other members of the Seven in appropriate ways.

This is where the film's quality moves past the "it'd be hard to mess that up" combination of rock-solid premise and genuinely great cast. The trailers have promised a film full of high-flying horsemanship and epic shoot-outs, and make no mistake - the film delivers that. But, aside from a few scenes of punctuation sprinkled throughout the first act, most of that comes in the appropriately packed finale. The majority of the film is given to allowing the characters to bounce off of each other and play up the drama of Rose Creek's seemingly-impossible plight. Not only does the film-making ensure that these scenes play as entertaining in their own right (if rote, at times), but it lends stakes and weight to the inescapable showdown. We get just enough time with Emma Cullen and her people and Sam Chisolm and his people so that every tragic loss, suicidal charge, and heroic final stand has real weight.

Other than highly efficient craft, there's not much else to recommend The Magnificent Seven. It's not reinventing anything, it doesn't stand as a grand statement on a genre or a time, but it does feel like a fairly canny melding of times. Fuqua shoots his action with a speed that feels frenetic but a focus that never feels confused, and the score from the late James Horner (Braveheart, Titanic) and his collaborator Simon Franglen is as stringy and brassy as any triumphant orchestral work from the genre's heyday, while also being used to genuinely nerve-jangling effect in the scenes where Fuqua ratchets up the tension before a confrontation.

But on the other side of the coin, there's not much that works against this film's favor, either. It's violence may seem off-putting (it's easily the hardest PG-13 to come along in a good long while), but it sells the reality and consequence of death without soaking itself in gore like Django Unchained or The Hateful Eight. It's a rock-solid western that blends modern blockbuster sensibilities with old-fashioned genre savvy and a murderer's row of crackling performances from its titular leads (as well as a powerful turn from Bennett in what could have been a thankless damsel role, but she turns into something much more).

It may not be quite as magnificent as its aim, but if it misses, it ain't by much.

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