The Magnificent Seven

Film Review By Christian Tesfaye - special to Fortune

Akira Kurasawa’s original Seven Samurai is "an epic to end all epics", according to Christian Tesfaye, Fortune Film Reviewer. Though it's 1960 remake, The Magnificent Seven, became a classic, it was far from reaching the exceptional levels of it's predecessor. Now, 2016 brings us a remake of a remake, which despite excellent action sequences and reasonable casting, pales into comparison with the original - 6 out of 10 stars.

In my younger years, not long before I became a fully-fledged film buff, I came across Akira Kurasawa’s Seven Samurai. The film was Japanese, and it was about farmers in a small village who recruit seven samurai to fend off the bandits that keep terrorising their town.

The film started and the hours flew by unfelt. It was grand, stylish, humorous and melancholic, revolving around a strong argument for human decency. It was an epic to end all epics. For a long time now, my favourite of all Kurasawa’s movies has been the fantastic Rashomon, but I believe this is because the film holds a special kind of place in my heart as opposed to actually being the better movie.

It wasn’t only me that was impressed; long before I got to see it, so was Hollywood. They even made a remake, entitled The Magnificent Seven. Since samurais only existed in medieval Japan, the film was updated to the American frontier; the seven samurais became cowboys hired to protect a small town from Mexican outlaws.

The critics, at that time, were largely displeased with the remake, but contemporary evaluation has rendered it a classic. Seeing the film, I could see why the original reception was lukewarm – the film is indeed pretty, polished and hollow. But I could also see why later generations would approve of it – The Magnificent Seven is nostalgic of a time when Western movies were valued.

And now, remake number two. If it was going to be inevitable, why couldn’t they have remade the better one – the Japanese original? But, I guess, there aren’t very many internationally bankable Asian movie stars, let alone seven of them. We are stuck with a remake of a modest remake of a great movie.

The film’s first scene takes place inside a church where villagers have congregated to discuss not God but the threat that a cruel rich man, Bartholomew Bogue, has posed to their town. He would show up from time to time, and brutishly and unfairly demand his due like the Mafia. The farmers and miners of the town are tired of this, but they can’t do anything about it as Bogue owns several trigger-happy gunslingers. In desperation, they put together what little valuables they have left and set out to look for more decent hired guns.

The first of the seven the villagers persuade to join their cause is an African-American bounty hunter. Hearing the name of the troublemaker, he doesn’t waste any time recruiting a small, but very able, crew of cowboys willing to risk their lives for less. After the magnificent seven assemble, they leave for the town and prepare for a major assault. The final scenes of the film, in terms of scale and body count, border on a war movie.

One of the most clever plot devices the original Japanese film employed was making the farmers so incredibly poor as to be unable to pay the samurai with anything more than rice meals. This made the title characters easy to sympathise with – they weren’t mercenaries hired to kill for money, but seven men who would sacrifice their lives in order to help those that can’t protect themselves.

Likewise, in both the remakes, the cowboys aren’t paid nearly enough to take on such odds. They go into the job knowing they will probably die by the end. In this film, Sam Chisolm, leader of the seven, brings together the type of deeply unflawed people the audience ought to like. Casting was very crucial here, and Antoine Fuqua, or whoever the Casting Director was, does a very good job.

Denzel Washington plays Chisolm, the bounty hunter, but he doesn’t have as much screen time as would be expected given his star power. Instead, and rightly so, just as much attention is given to the remaining six, who are also played by comparably talented actors, like Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio. I was especially impressed by D’Onofrio’s performances, and I think his character is the warmest and saddest. He is probably most known for playing the villain in the Daredevil TV series, where, similarly, he gave a shockingly well attuned depiction of a tortured mindset. The actor deserves more work.

Fuqua is one of those directors who could, and even may, make a great movie one day. The closest he has ever come to such a film was with Training Day, but that film might owe so much of its cleverness to the script and its two leads (Washington and Hawke, again), rather than Fuqua himself. He has since become a commercial filmmaker whose credo is to give audiences what they expect. He does choose some very interesting scripts, which aren’t aimless, but usually bails out on their themes by the third act. In the past two years, he has made two very mediocre movies – 2014’s The Equaliser could have been Taxi Driver meets Taken, but Fuqua turned it into cheese. And in 2015’s Southpaw, the only one that showed up for work seemed to be Jake Gyllenhaal. The Magnificent Seven is entertaining, but there was so much room for improvement.

The establishing shots of Washington’s character regard him from far away – we don’t see his face. In the next shots, we get glimpses of his hands, which are black, intercut with reaction shots of white people that are looking at Chisolm with unease. And this small segment is the only scene in the movie that comments on the fact that Chisolm is a black man in a southern state of America in the 19th century. The rest of the film takes place in an alternate universe, where racism is obviously not a problem.

Sure, there were several black cowboys during that time and they might have been in demand for their skills, just as much as the white ones, but they also didn’t saunter around like they were in a liberal utopia. Even the villains, who are supposed to be bad people, are strangely colour-blind. I wonder if it is right to pretend racism never existed and I wonder if that was why I didn’t much love this rather engaging Western movie, which is full of fantastic action sequences.

Published on Oct 11,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 858]



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