Monday, September 26, 2016

The Magnificent Seven movie review.

Once upon a time, the Hollywood western was one of the most popular and celebrated genres of all time, but following its heyday in the 50's and 60's, it later began to fade in popularity. Despite a solid resurgence in the early 90's with films such as Unforgiven and Tombstone, it later would mainly find life either in independent fare, or in a revisionist form such as the recent Tarantino filmography.

One of the most notable examples of them was the John Sturges directed The Magnificent Seven, itself a remake of the Akira Kurosawa directed Seven Samurai. Fondly remembered for its eclectic assembly of talent, rousing Elmer Bernstein score, and its epic gunslinging action, it has since inspired several sequels and numerous pop culture allusions, culminating in the 2016 remake by Training Day director Antoine Fuqua. So the question is, can it rejuvenate the Hollywood western in this era of blockbusters?

The year is 1879, and ruthless mining baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) has given the citizens of Rose Creek an ultimatum: Leave their town of their own will, or be slaughtered by his army of hired guns. Unwilling to let this happen, the widowed Emma Cullen (Haley Bennet) ventures out of town to seek the help of gunslingers and bounty hunters willing to aid them in their struggle. Led by Denzel Washington's Sam Chisolm, they eventually rally together a band of seven, including Chris Pratt's charismatic gambler Josh Faraday, Ethan Hawke's former Confederate sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux, and other rough and tough fighters (rounded out by Vincent D'Onofrio, Byung-Hun Lee, Martin Sensmeir, and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), who begin preparing the frightened townsfolk for the coming war against Bogue's mercenaries.

For better and for worse, The Magnificent Seven embodies the spirit of iconic 60's westerns. Unlike many recent westerns that give the landscape a heavy makeover, the script by Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk never strays too far from all of the classic tropes of that era, as well as the archetypal characters made popular by these movies. On the one hand, it's something of a detraction in the movie's case, given that the film doesn't tend to leave much in the way of surprise, nor does it strive for any significant innovation, and those same character types that we've come to know don't get much expansion, with the film - for the most part - shorting viewers on full character development. On the other hand, I am willing to forgive the film for these issues as it is still very sincere in its approach and sense of pace, and while the central seven as well as a couple other important characters aren't anything terrific, the way that the film compensates this flaw by instead progressing them as a unit works wonders.

Through every second of this film, what carries it so well is the fabulous cast selections, and the interplay between actors. While they're typically not much more than what their introductions set them up to be (and some of them do have absolutely killer introductions... all jokes aside), the level of personality that they show as well as the level of intensity and wit they bring to the table makes for a highly entertaining showcase of talent. From Denzel Washington bringing his reliably intense and methodical man of few words seamlessly and excellently into the new landscape, to Chris Pratt as a charming and disarming man of tricks with great laughs, to Ethan Hawke as a man disillusioned by the actions of his past and driven to fear by those horrors resurfacing, and while the remaining members of the seven don't get nearly as much exposure, the film still manages to give them each one crowd pleasing moment amidst the chaotic shootouts. But the individuality is not the real draw of the team. Rather it's the scenes of the group interacting as a unit that become some of the film's easy highlights, with the septet sharing an effortless and terrific chemistry that creates sparks with every crude or dire conversation they engage in. Alas, if any character needed much more screen time for better use of their abilities, it's Peter Sarsgaard as the film's villain, who still manages to leave a hammy and frightening impact that steals the movie anytime he appears, but who only has all of two scenes to show off his chops before the extended climax.

But by and large, the reason that The Magnificent Seven works so well is the dedication on the part of Antoine Fuqua. As unlikely a fit as it may seem, Fuqua's usual sense of grit and violence finds itself a natural home in the Western genre, managing to even bring a refreshing update to the aforementioned tropes of the setting, with a particularly strong and meticulous deal of suspense during gunplay and fights, making even the most beautiful shots of the terrain bear an unmistakable sense of danger. Speaking of which, that same level of meticulous detail is present all throughout the excellent technical points, serving as Fuqua's unabashed love letter to every classic western he's ever seen, showing obvious debts to everything from High Noon to The Wild Bunch, and recreating the spirit of the 1960 original with infectious enthusiasm, allowing DP Mauro Fiore to sweep through the space of each scene with fitting grandeur, and the last of the late James Horner's scores playing as both a faithful yet refreshingly divergent take on the works of Bernstein and Morricone.

The same level of effort can be seen just as well in the action sequences, wherein Fuqua has a great deal of fun further allowing the eclectic personalities of the central seven to come out in full force, all the while building gradually to the virtuoso 20+ minute shootout and battle near the film's end. But as fun as the sequence can be, it's also such a perfectly built finale thanks to the high stakes that have been set up. Throughout the entire film, the characters have all come to the very grim and bloody realization that, even if the frightened townsfolk win, heavy casualties will be felt. It's the type of realization that understandably drives many citizens to abandon their homes before Bogue's hired guns arrive, and one that continually makes the viewer more concerned for the safety of these people. But unlike other films that would choose to shy away from axing off audience favorites and tone down the grim outcome, The Magnificent Seven stays true to its word, gutsy and unafraid to rack up a heavy body count to further drive home the intensity of the scenario.

So through all of its conventions, The Magnificent Seven still manages to hold up very well. It may not be innovative or have anything particularly new to say about the Western, but it didn't try to, nor did it need to. Instead, it wisely chose to hearken back and deliver on exactly the type of great popcorn thrill ride it wanted to become, letting the terrific interplay of the cast do most of its talking, and provides a natural fit to Fuqua's sensibilities. Believe me, after the kind of dismal and limited summer movie season we've just had to endure, maybe a bit of good-natured and familiar thrills was exactly what we needed...

**** / *****

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