The Magnificent Seven (USA, 2016)

Directed by: Antoine Fuqua. Still haven’t seen Training Day, so to me Fuqua is still associated with not great movies like this one, and really bad movies like this one. But I suppose the reunion of Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke is a cause for celebration, right? It’s just too bad it had to be this thing. Honestly, I can’t think of a less necessary remake than this one. And I know, to be fair, we are in an era of remakes, and we are in an era of the arbitrary remaking of classic Westerns for no discernible reason—3:10 to Yuma, High Noon, The Virginian—and new entries like American Outlaws, Open Range, Appaloosa, etc—in addition to quality recent Westerns from Unforgiven to The Assassination of Jesse James and some great Tommy Lee Jones films. And, as recently noted, the form of the Western is alive and well, as Logan demonstrates. But I hate to say it: beyond the basic structure that this film shares with the source material, this is more of an action-adventure in cowboy hats than it is a real Western. And for that matter, the source matter was an adaptation of The Seven Samurai. It did lend itself to a Western because the heroes are a bunch of misfits who use their skills to save the community at their own expense, but the fact that there are seven of them, and they’re just guns for hire, not connected to the community really, to me makes this a pretty weak example of a Western, structurally. Then you get into the idea of remaking this for a standard, brainless, Hollywood action flick for a modern audience. To me, right from the beginning, the whole enterprise raises two important questions—why? and don’t! Why? Were there no other properties with which Antoine Fuqua could reunite Denzel and Ethan and throw Chris Pratt in there? Hell, Training Day 2 with a new young recruit played by Pratt, that at least would have had a chance of being relevant to modern society. This current film has no bearing to society, has only a fleeting mythological function, and it’s a ghostly, poor contribution to the Western as an art form. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see Denzel do just about anything, and it’s great to see Peter Sarsgaard as evil incarnate. But this is a cartoon drama, and all of the characters are pretty flat. That’s one of the built-in flaws of this movie, and why the original was never as interesting a Western as Shane, High Noon, or anything from John Ford: seven characters is a hell of a lot of characters to invest anything in, so you end up skimming pretty light on character in order to withstand the demands of an exciting, brisk, action movie. The question of retroactively trying to make the past more progressive than it was in order to fit our modern sensibilities is an interesting topic, and I’m open to it, since historical films stretch history to fit its demands anyway—the dynamic between Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is one of my favour buddy-cop dynamics ever, even though historically, a white guy being friends with a black guy was extremely rare in the 1950’s, much less in the 1150’s. So I get it—they wanted to make it less than seven white guys. But I feel like they fail in their goal. Denzel is awesome, and he has the kind of gravity, like Morgan Freeman in Unforgiven, that you don’t really need a ton of exposition to “explain” why all of these post-Civil War white people are treating him like a human being, and they just get on with it. Why? Because he’s fucking Denzel, get over it. And they need a bit more exposition to introduce the Mexican guy, and Lee Byung-Hun, but to me, by this point, it may demand more exposition than they provide to explain how none of the townsfolk are alarmed or confused by this United Nations of gunfighters. To me, that’s a part of the Old West—openly racist white people. And the addition of the exiled Comanche warrior seemed very tokenistic, perhaps because the Western is an art form predicated on an explicitly racist view towards Indigenous people, so to try to soothe that over kind makes it all the more pressing to ask Why did this movie need to be remade? And on top of it, this character was the least fleshed out of all of them, making it seem all the more tokenistic, and frankly, how he just lurks on rooftops, firing arrows from a distance, kind of just lines up squarely with the racist, anonymous-threat-in-the-shadows depiction of Indigenous people in real Westerns anyway, which to me even further begs the question: Why did this movie need to be remade? But the movie made more money than it cost, so that’s the answer—because apparently, modern audiences don’t mind a bit of dress-up, as long as it ticks all the other boxes.

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