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Movie Review: The Magnificent Seven

For all of its faults and failings, The Magnificent Seven is just so much damned fun. And there haven't been a whole lot of just fun Westerns in a quite a while.
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Aisle Seat, Rob Slack

The Magnificent Seven

Directed by Antoine Fuqua

In Theatres

"What we lost in the fire, we found in the ashes."

Before we rend our clothing and cry to the heavens about Hollywood's lack of original thought, ponder this - 2016's The Magnificent Seven is a remake of 1960's The Magnificent Seven. Which was a remake of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. Which was inspired by the novel Red Harvest. And then there's the sequels Return of the Seven, Guns of the Magnificent Seven and The Magnificent Seven Ride. And a TV series. And Pixar's A Bug's Life. Three sequels, a TV series and a Pixar movie - a pretty good run for a film that when released in 1960 was a domestic box office disappointment.

The modern conviction that Hollywood is a some kind of beige carpeted circle of Hell, where any original thought is exorcised from its bearer in some kind of ancient Sumerian ritual that involves goats and copper bowls, that things were better in some vague notion of the past, is probably more supported by social media than by any actual fact. Your great-grandparents were bemoaning the lack of originality at their local theatre, while also mocking the hipsters and their swing music. 1933's King Kong was followed less than a year later by Son of Kong and repeated sixteen years later by Mighty Joe Young. Ben Hur has been filmed five times since 1907. So, yeah, calling out today's Hollywood for fostering a lack of originality and creativity and for pushing a culture of remakes and sequels on its audience is a Greek chorus that has been standing slightly off-stage for a century. Heck, the 1939 Wizard of Oz was the fourth film by that title. Critics and pop culture writers of the time probably took pen to paper and spewed thousands of words about Frank Baum's vision being desecrated by this sound and colour abomination. 

And this meandering preamble brings us to the film we're going to discuss this week.

The Magnificent Seven is fun. It has a light step and it's charming and pleasant and entertaining. It won't be mistaken for a masterpiece, it'll never replace the copy of Seven Samurai that sits on your mantle. Nor will it replace John Sturges' 1960 The Magnificent Seven, the one sits on your DVD shelf dedicated to Western masterpieces between Unforgiven and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Our new The Magnificent Seven is good, violent fun. People ride horses and shoot at other people on horses and things blow up real good and the film just zips along at a great brisk pace. Director Antoine Fuqua and cinematographer Mauro Fiore capture some moments on film that are lovely and remind fans of Westerns why we love the genre: mountain peaks that stretch to the sky and beyond, plains that travel forever, that magical spot just above the tree line where you're sitting on rocks and boulders and scrub looking at evergreens just a few metres away. 

But, let's get real here, the film is flawed. During the action set pieces, especially the climatic one, the sense of geography is a bit of a mess. At times there is no sense of where the various bad guys are in relation to the various good guys. And while the story leaves room for the bonding of the titular seven, there is rarely a sense of why they've come together. And without this cast, led by Denzel Washington, this movie's failings might have bothered me a lot more than they did. But this cast, this mighty, mighty cast, elevates this film in a way rarely seen. 

Denzel brings a fierce intensity to the film, a seriousness. There is grief and rage behind the eyes, a deliberateness to his movements. Dressed all in black, with his hat pulled low, there are moments in The Magnificent Seven when all you can see of his face are his eyes burning through the shadows. Chris Pratt is his counterpoint. He may have been miscast in a role that was essentially modelled on Steve McQueen, but his charm and his humour and his naked joy at being in this film are so appealing that I can forgive the need to cast this year's flavour. Vincent D'Onofrio is a giant of a man, a bear who uses every bit of his huge presence to create a character that is so full and deep in just a few scenes that I wish we could have a film just about his character. Ethan Hawke is a tortured soul, a veteran haunted by his sins who chews scenery like so much tasty scenery and only confides his fears to his best friend, played by Byung-hun Lee. Mr. Lee is a revelation. His timing and economy of motion that stole Red 2 from its Giant Cast of Stars is very much on display here. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo plays his Vasquez as a classic rogue. Haley Bennett lets grief and rage propel her character, she is a firestorm let loose in a genre where usually the women quietly vanish during the violence only to return when the credits are about to roll. Martin Sensmeier elevates his character of Red Harvest as much as he can, he brings dignity and humour and grace to a character that is essentially Magical Native Guy. 

Having Denzel star in a film pretty much guarantees that the performances, across the board, are going to be everyones's A-game. And from the above the line actors to the background meat flags, everyone brings their best work. 

Look, I love Westerns. I love giant widescreen panoramic shots of prairies with snow capped mountains in the distance, I love silhouetted heroes on horseback, sun setting behind them. I love fast draws and bad guys getting their comeuppance. Long moments of tension while an orchestra thunders, motifs that play when the hero steps out of a doorway. I'm a sucker for a Western, I really am. So maybe, just maybe I might be the wrong guy to tell you that to spend your hard earned dollars on The Magnificent Seven. It does what it's supposed to do, it's a Western. We cheer for the good guys, the bad guys twirl their moustaches and the ladies are pretty and tough. And, for all of its faults and failings, The Magnificent Seven is just so much damned fun. And there haven't been a whole lot of just fun Westerns in a quite a while. 

And this is where I recommend a podcast. There is a podcast called Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period, hosted by Kevin Avery, writer for This Week Tonight with John Oliver and W. Kamau Bell, host of CNN's United Shades of America. And it is, honestly and truly, one of the great all-time pieces of pop culture reporting of ever. Each episode they discuss all things Denzel, his films, his Denzelishness. If you're not already a Denzealot, download Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period and join us. We have cake.