Antoine Fuqua brings together a star-studded cast in this remake of a remake. Kurosawa Akira’s Seven Samurai, hailed as one of the best movies ever made, was three hours long. Thankfully, Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven follows in the footsteps of the 1960 Magnificent Seven with a shorter runtime instead of imitating Kurosawa’s epic. (To this day, I still think only the LOTR movies have any right to be three hours long.)
I watched Seven Samurai about 5-6 years ago, and finally got around to watching the 1960 Hollywood remake last night. So this review is probably going to have quite a few comparisons…
- Denzel Washington oozes charisma as Sam Chisholm. Most of the main cast do quite well too. Chris Pratt pulls off the witty gambler type easily enough (it’s not too far from his Star-Lord character in Guardians of the Galaxy), and Ethan Hawke does a good job as Goodnight Robicheaux, a friend of Chisholm’s who seems to be suffering in secret from some form of PTSD. Peter Sarsgaard is suitably creepy and cruel as the villain, Bartholomew Bogue. (The name Bartholomew Bogue sounds like a villain’s name. Nicely chosen. Maybe it’s the alliteration or something. haha)
- I do like stories where the underdogs have to win by using their brains more than sheer brawn. In that respect, I enjoyed the tactics the seven set up to face Bogue’s men although they’re less impressive than the ones in Red Cliff (though it must be said that Red Cliff also had a lot of graphic violence. Sigh. I miss the times when graphic violence was not the norm).
- Parts of the score – the happier parts – reminded me of Copland’s music, which was to be expected but also fits perfectly with a western. No better music to take as inspiration!
- The mining town was a better setting than the Mexican border town of the 1960 Magnificent Seven (henceforth M7 because I don’t want to keep typing “the 1960 Magnificent Seven” over and over again). This version shifted thematically further from Seven Samurai, which works to its advantage because it’s more “localised.” I got the feeling with M7 that it was attempting to keep Kurosawa’s themes and ideas but not all of them worked as well after the cultural transplantation.
- They didn’t spend an eternity on the “recruitment” phase, which was one thing I feared. Fortunately, the recruitment process was relatively quick and then it was down to business.
- No romantic subplot between the widow Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) and any of the seven. I was a bit worried that they would try and force a love story between Emma and Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), but they didn’t. Yay! It would’ve been out of character for Emma, who had only just lost her husband to Bogue’s gun at the start of the movie.
- They left out the classic ending line from Seven Samurai, where the leader Kambei reflects on how the samurai have lost again, and the victory is really for the peasants. When Yul Brynner’s Chris says the same lines at the closing of M7, it doesn’t carry the same weight. So as with the changed setting, the changed closing lines here – a voiceover by Emma, calling them “magnificent” – work much better for it.
The Bad (or the Not-So-Good)
- I was not a fan of how violent the movie was at parts. Other reviews call it “stylised violence” but the fancy adjective just means that it’s still pretty graphic. To be honest, I’m not sure what exactly was so “stylised” about it…
- Compared to the other “leader” characters in M7 and Kurosawa’s original, Chisholm is the least heroic since we find out later that his real motivation is revenge. Kambei in Seven Samurai and Chris Adams in the earlier M7 didn’t have any motive beyond compassion and that it seemed the right thing to do. This is something that’s becoming more common in films these days – your heroes can’t just be good guys; they must be troubled good guys, or good guys with a dark past. I’m beginning to tire of it. (Is it any wonder that I was instantly drawn to the character of Steve Rogers, who appears to be good because it is right and not because he was a reformed jerk?)
- Goodnight Robicheaux. I thought the character had a lot of potential. He was clearly very skilled and had a fearsome reputation despite his somewhat genteel air. Then he lets an enemy escape because he can’t bring himself to fire his gun. That was interesting. When it later transpires that he does have some form of PTSD from fighting in the Civil War, the character acquires an added depth. But he deserts the group right before the climactic showdown. And it’s completely unconvincing from a narrative standpoint. You just know that he’s going to come back, and he does. When he does, it’s not even particularly interesting – he just bursts onto the scene, yelling that Bogue has a gattling gun… When the rest of them are already getting shot at with the gattling gun. Had he returned a bit earlier amidst the gunfight and informed them that he saw Bogue’s gattling gun waiting to be used, that would have been different. They would’ve been taken aback, their plans shaken and a new plan needed to deal with the new unexpected threat. Or, if he’d reappeared on the scene and blown up the gattling gun, that would have carried more weight.
- Some of the other characters were wasted too. The biggest example of this was Lee Byung-hun’s Billy Rocks. He looked cool and was clearly frighteningly good with knives as well as with guns, but he hardly did anything. And he spent most of the fights handling a gun instead of knives so… The knife-throwing skill seemed irrelevant. (To be fair, it came across as slightly irrelevant in M7 too.) On top of that, Billy Rocks appeared to be a friend and protector of sorts to Goodnight Robicheaux, but apart from a few passing moments to imply this, nothing came of it. It really should have, considering that Robicheaux was the character that left them (and later came back). Billy ought to have had a larger part to play in that. The Comanche “Red Harvest” (Martin Sensmeier) was another wasted character who should have been given more lines and a little more to do than fight the token Comanche on Bogue’s side.
With Seven Samurai and M7, although you do have characters who are definitely minor players compared to the central three or four, it felt like they contributed more as individuals to the overall story. In this version, half of the seven appear to be there just because they needed seven people.
- The movie was predictable. However… This may be mostly because I’d seen Seven Samurai before, and although my memories of it are hazy, I still remembered enough to know major plot points. For example, I knew that a good many of the seven would not survive the movie. I couldn’t remember how many died at the end, but I knew that some would. (At the halfway point, I bet with myself that Faraday and Robicheaux would be among the dead. I was right.)
- Some of the scene’s geography wasn’t very clear in the final battle. I thought Bogue was up with the rest of his men where the gattling gun was. But no, wait, he wasn’t. And where were the seven telling the women and children to go? Into the fields? Wasn’t Bogue there – just beyond the fields?? Oh, no, they had the women and children run into the fields on the other side. It was a little confusing.
- You don’t find out what the motivations of the seven are, apart from Chisholm and Vasquez. Chisholm does it ostensibly for compassion (but really for revenge), and Vasquez follows because he’d very much like to have one less bounty hunter on his track. Why does Faraday seem to care? (There was one really odd scene between Faraday and Emma Cullen that puzzled me: Was it to show his soft side? Were they going to make these two fall in love? She questions his motivation but the answer isn’t really clear or satisfying.) Billy goes because Robicheaux does, but why does Robicheaux bother in the first place? Why does Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio)? Or Red Harvest? At least with the men in M7, you know why each of them is going to the border town with Chris, and some of them bond with the townsfolk, which lends extra motivation to the characters.
And the Other Stuff
- This movie has the hallmarks of contemporary movies: the hero is (secretly) troubled, the enemy is a rich industrialist, there’s a “strong female character,” there is a “diverse cast,” and there is “stylised violence.”
- I just like the way the name “Goodnight Robicheaux” rolls off the tongue.
So, is Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven superior to the 1960 version by John Sturges? No. But neither is the Sturges version significantly better. This 2016 version has the upper hand in some ways, and the 1960 one handles other aspects better. This new one has better acting (especially when it comes to minor and background characters), an actual plan to face the enemy, and better-adapted narrative themes. But the Sturges version has better characterisations, gives the townsfolk more depth, and has a better musical score. I can’t compare the cinematography because the technology and tastes are so different that it’s almost unfair to do so.
Are either of them better than Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai? Thematically, the original wins because it contains so much more than just an underdog story. In terms of pacing, yes. It may be a highly acclaimed film, but three hours is a long time…