Monday, 17 October 2016

The Magnificent Seven (2016) - Movie Review

Even in the realms of cinematic remakes, this is a rather unique ouroborosian situation. While you are quickly Googling that word, I’ll get into why this is. Back when I looked at Slow West, I made brief mention of the relationship between Japanese and Western cinema and here is where we crash head-first into one of the first branches on that tree. Based on the Akira Kurosawa classic Seven Samurai, the original Magnificent Seven is a seminal staple of Old Hollywood and set in place an action blueprint of the rag-tag team of characters that come together to fight a great foe that would be copied verbatim for decades to follow. If you’ve ever watched A Bug’s Life, then you have a pretty good idea of the formula. With that in mind, and the fact that this is a reimagining of a remake of a definitive piece of cinema (all of which has sprouted its own niches and sub-genres in their wake), this could prove a tricky one. It is also, based solely on the trailer, one of the few films this year that I have genuinely been anxious to see for myself. Time to dig in and see how this holds up, considering this film has a lot that it needs to prove.

The plot: Bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), upon arriving in the frontier town of Rose Creek, is recruited by Emma (Haley Bennett) to defend their town against the ruthless business magnate Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who will stop at nothing to plunder the town for all its worth. Chisolm then recruits gambler Faraday (Chris Pratt), confederate soldier Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), knife thrower Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee) and Native American warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) to assist him.

The main reason why I was looking forward to this film as much as I did was the cast, and it’s a heady mix of really damn good and really damn average. Washington brings a learned stoicism to his role as the rudimentary leader, basically being the mediator for this very varied rogue’s gallery. Pratt is easily the most entertaining, being cheeky and badass in equal measure and even managing to bring proper drama at times. D’Onofrio starts out on a weird note, quite literally as he uses this out-of-place higher-pitched voice, but his skill in character acting serves him well as he probably embodies the frontiersman spirit better than anyone else here. Lee manages to redeem his middling attempt at quiet menace back in Genisys, as he imbues Billy Rocks with the kind of quiet confidence that shows a lot of promise for future action ventures.

Hawke carries the bulk of the dramatic weight here with remarkable ease, weaving between roaring fury and whispered regret amazingly well. The rest of the cast doesn’t hold up so well, though. For all the pre-release posturing about trying to make Emma, who is essentially a token female in the story, into a more immediate character kind of backfired because she has little to no immediacy on screen. And speaking of those lacking immediacy, both Sensmeier and Garcia-Rulfo are pretty blank slates as well besides their ethnicity. You know, of all the elements of old-school Westerns to harken back to, their racial sensibilities probably wasn’t the wisest choice. And as for Sarsgaard as the villain, aside from looking like he’s going to keel over from heatstroke at any moment, he has a few moments to shine and let loose with this quasi-God complex. Most of the time, however, he’s a bit bland.

The character writing here is a real study in contrasts; specifically, between really well-rounded and really basic, much like the acting. This really makes the film tougher to sit through than it should be because, when writers Nic Pizzalatto and Richard Wenk get it right, it is astoundingly good. The big showcase of this is with Goodnight, the former confederate soldier who is seriously haunted by the lives he has already taken. As I said, Hawke pulls it off masterfully but what makes it work so well is that it actually lends some credence to this being a more Revisionist take on the original story. Same goes for Billy Rocks, who brings in a bit of the racial sensitivity that modern Westerns have taken a shine to and his relationship with Goodnight is probably the strongest coupling of any in the film.

And then there’s bits of surface feminism with Emma, trying to prove that she can fight alongside the big boys, but again, difficult to prove importance of character when there is barely any character there to begin with. This is a lot more traditional than the production quotes may have you believe, which kind of sucks considering that this film’s best parts are those that feel updated for the times. I mean, I’m not entirely opposed to this being a fresh coat of paint or a fresh pair of eyes on an old story; it’s just that this film has difficulty reconciling both of them together. The real irony of all this is that the story of an assorted group of characters banding together to fight perceived evil? The Avengers films and Captain America: Civil War have proven that it is still possible to use that story to good and profitable ends.

After looking through director Antoine Fuqua’s recent filmography, from Olympus Has Fallen to The Equalizer to Southpaw, it’s clear that the man has a very distinct and commendable approach to action scenes. Rather than going for grand spectacle and mass Michael Bay-esque explosions to give his films the punch-up they need, he instead goes for the more down-to-earth and restrained. It’s usually brutal, bloody in places but never gratuitously so, and focuses more on impact than visuals. Basically, it’s like the difference between a bleeding wound and a giant bruise; you feel it, just in a different way. It is this style of action scene-setting that makes his decision to film a Western, regardless of the source material, make all the sense possible.

He brings back the classic staple of the Western genre, the shootouts, and gives them an appropriate slickness and finesse without it seeming overly flashy. Hell, when it comes time to use actual explosives on-screen, it’s honestly surprising how grounded it looks as compared to pretty much any other filmed explosion in recent months. Check out the trailer for the upcoming Jack Reacher sequel and you’ll notice the difference. More than any other aspect of the production, from the writing to the casting, it’s the action beats that give this film the most credence in terms of its reason to exist in today’s film market: Because it represents a form of cinematic action that is starting to fade away quicker than you may realise. I don’t even care at this point if this was relatively disappointing; Antoine, keep making films. We need this kind of variety to keep the Taken-heavy action scene interesting.

All in all, this is an almost annoyingly mixed result. Knowing how good this film can get, like with some of its characters and action set pieces, the slightly-below-average moments feel that much worse because these filmmakers are clearly capable of much more. The acting has some seriously good highlights, particularly Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke, the writing fills up some of the characters and leaves others to run on fumes for most of the film and the action scenes show Fuqua doing what he does best: Low-flash, high-intensity visual workouts. I still got the fun ride that I was expecting, but after seeing how surprisingly deep this could get, I can’t help but be a little disappointed with the end result.

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