The story is very simple: a crazed California official Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) invades the mining town of Rose Creek, killing many civilians in the process, and lays claim to the land, promising to return and reap its profits. Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) the wife of one of the killed men, hires a bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) to protect the town. Unable to do so alone, Chisolm recruits six other men: lethal gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), veteran sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), knife fighter Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), eccentric tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), and Comanche archer Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier).
There isn’t much about this movie that’s original. The story about a group of heroes banding together to protect the underdog has been done in dozens of movies since Seven Samurai, and this film doesn’t plot-wise do a whole lot different from that movies’ western remake. The characters are all archetypes, mostly parallels to the 1954 cast. Washington is Yul Brynner, Pratt is Steve McQueen, Hawke is Robert Vaughn, Lee is James Coburn, etc. The beats of the story are very familiar to anyone who’s seen the tropes established in these kind of movies. But here, a lot of them manage to be fun again: the training of the town to get ready for the upcoming battle, the initial hopelessness in their endeavour that you know will turn in their favour, the corny “how many you got?” bit.
Each of the Seven are great. Even though some aren’t developed as much as they should be, they all get a few moments to shine, and the comradery comes through. Washington is as usual pretty on form, Pratt is doing his thing, D’Onofrio is delightfully strange, and I want to see more of Lee, Sensmeier, and Garcia-Rulfo. The best performance of this group though is definitely Hawke, as his character has the most interesting backstory. He’s also unsure of his abilities, which he masques with humour and his reputation during the Civil War. I also really like the ethnic diversity of this cast, as though it does feel a tad contrived, it’s a great metaphor for the films’ theme of unity. As for the villain, Sarsgaard’s good but the character’s pretty dull. There really isn’t a reason for why he’s doing what he’s doing beyond generic greed. His insane, violent personality is imposing, but doesn’t seem all that necessary. In both previous iterations of this story, the villains were simple bandits, they didn’t need to have a complicated scheme to steal the people’s goods, they just stole them. And even at his station in life, I find it hard to believe Bogue could summon an army to illegally harass this town.
While the first Magnificent Seven was made during the romanticized era of westerns, this film is of the gritty realistic variety the genre has more-or-less consistently favoured since Unforgiven. This both amplifies the violence (you can feel the impact of every gunshot), but it also makes the action so much more thrilling because the stakes feel more real. It’s much more satisfying to see the heroes taking down these bad guys after we’ve had a glimpse of the terror they’re capable of. The action in this movie is really well done, the climax very engaging and enjoyable. It’s shot really well too, not with sweeping grandeur like John Ford, but with intimate detail and focus. The opening scene where Bogue arrives at the town church, is made all the more suspenseful by the subtle horsemen you see out the windows, foreshadowing his larger gang.
It’s also worth noting the music, as this film’s score was the last composed by the late great James Horner, and it’s pretty good. But don’t worry, the classic Elmer Bernstein theme is in there too.
The Magnificent Seven isn’t a great film. It’s a remake of a story that probably would have been more interesting if reconstituted in a whole new context, and I wish the story set-up and character archetypes were a little more original, but I can’t say I didn’t really enjoy the ride. It’s refreshing to see a western succeed at both gritty realism as well as entertaining action and character, and I hope this isn’t the last to do so.