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The Magnificent Seven review: behold, the progressive Western

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Director Antoine Fuqua updates an old story for today's audiences

The Magnificent Seven
The Magnificent Seven
Courtesy of TIFF

Whenever a movie remake or reboot comes out, there’s a general outcry about the lack of originality in Hollywood, and how retooling existing properties is leaving a vast number of original scripts drifting out there, forever unproduced. (I should know, I’ve done some of that outcrying myself.) Unless there’s something fundamentally different about the new incarnation that essentially forks it into a different property, the argument goes, it’s all just a waste of time — an act of pure, crass commercialism.

But what happens when you get a movie that riffs on an old classic that many younger filmgoers have never seen? One that pays homage to a lost style of filmmaking, with a few modern upgrades? One that doesn’t really tweak story beats or characters at all, as much as it just fills those roles with a more representative cast than we’re used to seeing from Hollywood? And what happens if that movie is actually really satisfying?

The plot of Antoine Fuqua's The Magnificent Seven should sound incredibly familiar to anyone who has seen John Sturges’ 1960 original (or the film that he was remaking himself, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai). It’s the Old West, and the town of Rose Creek is being squeezed by a bloodthirsty industrialist named Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, chewing scenery with fervor). After Bogue guns down her husband, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett, The Equalizer) vows to find a group of gunmen that will defend the town.

First up is Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), a "duly sworn warrant officer" that’s been traveling around taking out various outlaws. After agreeing to defend Rose Creek, Chisolm starts gathering up his seven, including a loud-mouthed gambler named Farady (Chris Pratt), former Confederate sharpshooter Goodnight (Ethan Hawke), knife expert Billy Rocks (Byung-Hun Lee), and an outlaw named Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). From there it’s off to Rose Creek to train the townsfolk and prepare for their last stand.

Fuqua has made a proper Western with all the flourishes

Given Fuqua’s action-heavy filmography, it would be easy to assume this would be a souped-up, modern take on the genre, but it’s clear early on that the filmmaker is interested in making a proper Western, with all of the stylistic and genre flourishes that entails. Chisolm is introduced as a mysterious silhouette, bathed in lens flare and myth. Fuqua favors bold, widescreen compositions that recall cinema’s past rather than its hyperkinetic present. And while there is plenty of action and fighting in the film, there’s a reliance on stunt work and practical effects that lends a sense of rough-and-tumble danger to the scenes. They may be callbacks, sure, but they’re so refreshing — and executed with such flair — that Fuqua's film is ultimately a reminder of why the genre was once so wildly popular in the first place.

The weakest link, surprisingly, is one of the movie’s biggest stars: Chris Pratt. The actor has blown up since he made the leap to leading man in Guardians of the Galaxy, and his charisma continues to be undeniable. But Farady comes off as strangely anachronistic in Magnificent Seven. It’s not that he’s not an entertaining character; he just seems like he’s an entertaining character from an entirely different movie, as if Star-Lord grabbed a vest and revolver and headed on over. The rest of the cast are all able to grab small character moments or comedic beats while staying within the larger framework of the film — Vincent D’Onofrio’s warbling voice as a reclusive trapper is one particular high point — making Farady awkwardly stand out until the last would-be zinger.

Chris Pratt feels strangely out of place

That’s to say nothing of Haley Bennett’s Emma, whose spirited performance continually drives the film forward. But the character seems to be a case of the filmmakers wanting to have their cake and eat it, too: Emma is strong, refuses to back down, and strikes back when men in the film presume she couldn’t possibly be adept with a rifle (spoiler: she’s really good with a rifle). She then conveniently seems to lose all of that intelligence and determination just to have a damsel-in-distress moment, after which she’s back to her usual self.

But if reimagining the role of underserved characters in the Western was a goal of Fuqua's, then he achieves it much more adeptly when it comes to race. On one level, the film's main roles are simply filled with a more diverse set of actors than we're used to seeing in the genre, quietly making it an old story that is tuned in and representative of today's audiences. Casual racism is handled in the film, but it’s often quickly disarmed by laying it at the feet of buffoons or cowards (and sometimes Farady). As the movie winds toward it conclusion, however, it becomes obvious that the film’s concern runs deeper than that, and that Fuqua is eager to draw a connection between those issues and economic disparity in a very literal way. Wrapping all of that up in a popcorn-friendly blockbuster that will no doubt play to the masses is no easy feat, and it’s a reminder that movies don’t just entertain. They can inform. They can smuggle in new ideas, and set new expectations. If that’s the kind of thing that can be achieved by remaking classic old movies, I’m all for it.