The Magnificent Seven Doesn’t Come Close To Rekindling Old Magic
Despite an all-star cast, Antoine Fuqua’s update fails to hit its target.
Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) is not a nice man, he’s kind of like the Voldemort of the Wild West. Five minutes into director Antoine Fuqua’s, The Magnificent Seven, Bogue burns down a church. Just in case you still don’t know what kind of man he his, a character actually runs up to him and asks, “What kind of man are you?” As an exclamation point, Bogue shoots him dead (because they didn’t have dabbing in the 1800’s). That’s the kind of film Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven is. Whether it’s through clunky exposition or its overbearing score, the film constantly tries to hammer home a sense of grandiosity. With its stacked cast, including two spotlight sharing A-listers, no one can blame Fuqua for overloading his film with Hollywood bombast.
After resident robber baron, Bartholomew Bogue, sets up shop in the mining town of Rose Krick, the townspeople know they don’t stand a chance of fending off Bogue’s goon squad. Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), a plucky townswoman with a score to settle, sets out looking to hire gunslingers to defend the town. On her travels, she comes across Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), a bounty hunter whose past that may have some connection to Bogue. Along the way, Chisolm recruits an ethnically diverse crew made up of Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), Billy Rocks (Lee Byung-hun), Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), and Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio). Together, the seven outsiders battle overwhelming odds in hopes of defending Rose Krick and achieving something magnificent.
The western genre is defined by its gritty and grimy aesthetic. Fuqua crafts his world with too little tumbleweed and too much Hollywood sheen. The Magnificent Seven’s world doesn’t feel lived in, almost to the point of distraction. Sergio Leone created films that felt like peering through windows into the past. In Leone’s world, flies would buzz around rugged men’s faces. In Fuqua’s world, flies wouldn’t go near anyone – production assistants slather every extra on set in thick layers of Off. I never came close to losing myself in The Magnificent Seven. I visualized the actors going into their pockets and pulling out their iPhones as soon as Fuqua yelled cut. This is one slick looking picture. If The Magnificent Seven’s world was hit by a dust storm, the picture’s glossy coat would keep the filth from ever setting in.
How much dirt you like your westerns caked in is a matter of taste, however, Fuqua’s ability to make movie stars look like a million bucks is inarguable. Fuqua has a knack for stylishly blocking his actors. The film is filled with moments where the seven leads stand around in bad-ass poses ripped right from a comic book splash page. At times, the men saunter around in a manner befitting of a GQ cover spread. Fuqua’s sense of style is fun, looks cool, and gives the posse greater emotional heft than what the film’s narrative provides them – the script may not afford them time to grow as a team but boy do they ever look cool hanging out together!
The individual performances are a mixed bag. Despite looking as though he doesn’t age, Washington is an old pro. He could sleepwalk through most roles and still churn out compelling performances. It’s a good thing that he can too because there isn’t a lot of meat on The Magnificent Seven’s bone-thin script. Had this role gone to a lesser actor, Chisolm would have fallen flatter than the Great Plains. Washington does ramp up his emotional intensity in the final act, transforming himself into a vengeful terminator. Once Washington really locks into Chisolm’s angst he single-handedly wills The Magnificent Seven into engaging picture territory.
Pratt’s charisma burns with the intensity of a thousand suns. He shows up here and utilizes his familiar Chris Pratt bag of tricks. He’s funny, he’s hot, he’s charming, and also a bit of a dick. People will walk away looking forward to seeing his next role. When looking back on his career, no one will list this film as their favourite Pratt performance. He doesn’t give us anything more than we expect from him, which is a legitimate knock against someone with his talent.
In this considerable cast, it’s D’Onofrio that really takes a swing for the fences. D’Onofrio’s Jack Horne comes off as if Wilson Fisk had forsaken his criminal enterprises to live out life as Grizzly Adams. I’m not entirely sure that his performance works, but he makes interesting choices and he’s committed to them. D’Onofrio gets points for going outside the box. On the other end of the spectrum is Sarsgaard’s Bartholomew Bogue. If you thought Marvel movies had villain problems, well, he makes Civil War’s Baron Zemo look like the hunter that killed Bambi’s mother. For someone carrying the nefarious title of a robber baron, Bogue is as menacing as an asthmatic poodle.
Out of Chisolm’s crew, it’s Ethan Hawke’s Goodnight Robicheaux that I was most invested in. He imbues a marginal role with a level of humanity that was lacking in his castmate’s broad arch-types. The most intense moment of the film was a bit of chest puffing between Robicheaux and Faraday (more intense than the action set pieces – more on that in a moment). I would line up right now to see a spin-off movie about Robicheaux and partner Billy Rocks. The duo’s rapport was The Magnificent Seven’s best implementation of world building.
So what went wrong? On one hand, you have deep, well-acted, emotionally gripping epics; with this cast, epic wasn’t out of the question. One the other hand you have thrilling, visceral popcorn flicks. The Magnificent Seven succeeds at neither. The drama is never rousing and the fun bits just aren’t much fun.
Fuqua hits all the beats you want from a western. A mysterious stranger in black rides into town; men slowly step into saloons, sideways glances are exchanged, and of course, shootouts on Main street. Fuqua has a fantastic eye and packs the film with some genuinely breathtaking shots. What’s lacking is any sort of tension. The Magnificent Seven is hampered by flurries of quick cuts. There is a reason directors like Alejandro González Iñárritu and Terrence Malick go for long unbroken takes.
When the camera lingers, drama and tension steep in, creating a rich dramatic brew. When it comes to editing, Fuqua has an itchy trigger finger. Making matters worse, there are seven protagonists for Fuqua’s visual wanderlust to key in on. When the bullets start flying, the film turns into a game of quick-cutting hot potato. The camera cuts from actor A to actor C, then to actor B before switching back to actor A. The viewer loses all sense of what’s happening and where it’s happening. I’m not saying the film lacks cool moments, there’s plenty. However, those moments would really pop if Fuqua took his foot off the gas every now and then to let the drama build up.
The Magnificent Seven has action, it has laughs, it has superstar actors, it has a respected director; it has all the ingredients for a great film. Somewhere along the line, The Magnificent Seven’s execution fell short of its lofty ambitions. Somehow, someway, the picture coalesces into a whole that is less than the sum of its parts. It’s a film that is alright while it lasts but it won’t cross your mind once it’s over. If you poll people leaving The Magnificent Seven screenings on whether it’s a good movie, a large portion will say, “for sure!” Ask those same folks what their favourite moment is and I suspect there will be a lot of chin scratching.
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