The Magnificent Seven is almost a remake in name only—it takes the most bare bones plot outline while using different characters with much different motivations in a different western setting, etc. etc. etc. While the characters of the original are iconic [at least in my opinion] the snazzy hook of having seven exceptional gunslingers brought together is probably all that really matters. Given the chance at creating these new characters is ultimately a smart decision, allowing the film to become something different, have different thematic aims. And the new magnificent seven are no doubt a lot of fun.
Like the original, the “getting the group together” sequences are incredible fun, and this film even expands a bit, giving every single member a proper introduction. While this interestingly doesn’t heighten any of the emotional stakes for the individual members, the team dynamic feels stronger than before. They are made of components working together. The rundown: Chisholm [Denzel Washington] is a bounty hunter who is especially quick with a pistol; Josh Faraday [Chris Pratt] is a joker, introduced with a magic trick and deadly slight-of-hand; Goodnight Robicheaux [Ethan Hawke] was a Confederate soldier known as “The Angel of Death” for his sharp aim; Billy Rocks [Lee Byung-hun] is Robicheaux’s partner, incredibly adept with knives; Vasquez [Manuel Garcia-Rulfo] is a notorious Mexican outlaw; Jack Horne [Vincent D’Onofrio] is an expert tracker and Indian hunter, more like a bear than a man; and finally, Red Harvest [Martin Sensmeier] is a Native who has been expelled from his tribe for unknown reasons.
Chisholm is stone cold serious, almost devoid of personality in comparison to his colorful colleagues [especially when they have booze in their bellies]. Washington is such a comfortable and steady presence, though, that it works out. He might not say much, but he’s always thinking and always in control. Watching that kind of exceptionalism is a cornerstone of The Magnificent Seven and is compelling enough. Chris Pratt gets to be Chris Pratt—if you like the actor in anything else, you’ll like him here. The rest of the seven is joined by Emma Cullen [Haley Bennett], a young widow who acts as the seven’s vengeful benefactor. Unlike the original film, there is no romantic subplot and Cullen is no damsel in distress. She is an active member in the armed conflict, though I guess The Magnificent Eight doesn’t work as a title.
At quick glance, it is easy to see the glaring difference in the makeup of the seven: fewer than half are white. Strangely but smartly, The Magnificent Seven doesn’t beat you over the head with this fact. The film’s racial themes are mostly subtle, very rarely openly talked about by the characters. When Chisholm rides slowly into a town, the folk are aware that this is a black man in the years after the end of the Civil War, but their reactions are more natural than what you’d see in Blazing Saddles, for example. It is particularly interesting with Washington in the role, as the actor is one of the few African Americans to become a bona fide star in roles that aren’t necessarily African American on the page. At certain points, members of the seven [the white ones, that is] will make racial references to each other, but their differences are never doted on and there certainly aren’t any learning moments. They simply come together to fight together. As has already been written about, The Magnificent Seven plays like post-racial revisionist history. Like the Fast and Furious series, this feels like a positive thing, though it can definitely feel overly optimistic.
Furthering the racial divide between the versions of this story, both the villains and the hopeless townsfolk have become white. In the moment, I’m not exactly sure what to think about this change or fully understand the effects it has on the story. Obviously, the film now becomes a group of mixed race heroes intervening in a struggle between white folks and I suppose that flip has some thematic power to it, but its simplicity isn’t all that interesting. Now, the main baddie, Bartholomew Bogue [Peter Sarsgaard], is more of a shrewd businessman than the Mexican bandito. He’s also more of a modern villain, using the theories of capitalism to his advantage as he robs his victims blind. He’s no less violent, however, as the kind of man who will literally shoot the messenger.
As it reaches its inevitable conclusion, The Magnificent Seven becomes more interested in tactics than philosophy, moving much more like an action film than a western. Lost are the speeches about free will, independence and the American myth, replaced by explosions and quick editing. That sounds cynical [and it is why I’ll prefer the original], but as a film designed to make a boatload of money [I’m surprised it wasn’t slated for the summer] it is a perfectly fine ride, an above average blockbuster. This is the kind of movie that should have a long run on HBO and if you come in mid-way you’ll be immediately excited for the finale.