Sometimes a movie just needs to be entertaining. Whether it be the backdrop of an election year or the Fall movie season being packed to the brim with hyper-dramatic offerings, it is a good reminder that some films find their value in entertainment. The Magnificent Seven is perfectly serviceable in that respect. This is a movie that makes for a good time at the theater. There are fun performances and some really good action in this well-directed western. Unfortunately there’s not much more to it than that.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter, The Equalizer), The Magnificent Seven is a pretty straightforward remake of the 1960 classic (which was in it of itself a remake of 1954’s Seven Samurai). When a dastardly villain (Peter Sarsgaard doing an excellent mustache-curling bad guy here) bullies a small town for its nearby goldmine, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) recruits the help of Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) to defeat the evil. Chisolm rounds up the other six and they confront their foe…and it makes for a pretty entertaining movie.
I hope my simplifying of Magnificent Seven’s premise doesn’t come across as a slight against the movie, it’s not. In other scenarios, a film this straight forward would be derided, but here it works. The movie’s brazen entertainment value can be chalked up to two aspects: the talent in front of the camera and Fuqua’s direction. Fuqua and company do a great job recreating a Wild West setting. Whether it be the wide shots of horses riding in to battle or close confrontations in an old-timey church, the setting here feels lived in. The big standout for Fuqua is his direction for action and creating tension, he is extremely successful at causing the audience to feel uneasy when these characters confront each other and it really works to sell the character moments.
Apart from great filmmaking, if there is one aspect Magnificent Seven needed to get right it would be the seven themselves. Martin Sensmelr, Manual Garcia-Fulfo, and Byun-hun Lee round out the seven, each of them have some good character beats and their “fun” way of killing people. It is Vincent D’Onofrio, Ethan Hawke, Chris Pratt, and Denzel Washington who have more dramatic stakes to them and they carry us through the story (it is unfortunate that the three minorities of the group, excluding Denzel, really don’t get too much character work here).
D’Onofrio is (as Chris Pratt’s character describes him) a bear with human clothes on. His voice is high pitched and his character is that of a wild man, he’s a riot here. Ethan Hawke has a good subplot about a former Confederate soldier essentially dealing with PTSD, while still living in the bloody world of the Wild West (really interesting concept to explore). Chris Pratt is very Chris Pratt, the wild card to Washington’s straight man. And Washington is the film’s center, he is one of the best actors working today and you can tell when you watch Magnificent Seven.
Here is where the film is disappointing. While you have Fuqua’s excellent filmmaking and these actors bringing these fun characters to life, there is nothing beneath the surface here. What you see is what you get. Now to be fair, “what you get” is a good time at the movies, but there is much to be desire when it comes to drama here.
I’m not saying that Magnificent Seven needed to turn in its goofy card games for more “serious” conversations about the nature of conflict. You can be a fun blockbuster while still putting a little more dramatic weight on your main characters (i.e. what Marvel usually gets right). What’s hard about Magnificent Seven is that there is an attempt when it comes to giving our characters some motivation/meaningful arcs. Both Washington and Hawke have these mysterious backstories and their conversations hint at such. So it was very surprising to me that the screenplay opts to withhold the “reveal” as it would have increased our investment in the action.
Again, this movie is fun, let’s not lose sight of that, but I was spending most if with the central question, “why would these people give their lives for a conflict that they have zero connection to?” You would expect they would give us the big reason right before the third act battle, raising the stakes on the fight, making us care more. But they don’t. Instead, the reveal (pretty loose use of that word here) is given at the end of the film. Some movies can retroactively make a movie more interesting when they give information like this at the end, but Magnificent Seven is not one. Instead, you simply shrug your shoulders and say “Ok, I guess.”
So though I wish there was some more backstory or dramatic weight to raise the stakes of the action, that doesn’t mean this is a bad movie by any means. Magnificent Seven is what it is, and that is not a bad thing. Each member of the crew gets their moment to be awesome and anytime we get a Washington-lead action movie is a good day. So seeing The Magnificent Seven is not a total wash, and don’t underestimate the power of a good time at the theater, this film delivers the goods where it matters.
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