Training Day director Antoine Fuqua is back on the reboot trail following his slick 2014 upgrade of The Equalizer. Only instead of another popular 80s TV show, it’s the iconic 1960 western adventure (itself a remake of Kurosawa’s masterful Seven Samurai) that gets the action-injection makeover.
The basic premise remains the same: seven hombres with deadly skills band together to rescue a community beset by bad guys. The departure here, though, is the people under threat aren’t Mexican peons in a small border village, but the inhabitants of Rose Creek, a budding town of homesteaders and settlers. And the enemy isn’t a predatory bandit but rich, rapacious land baron Bartholomew Bogue (played with dead-eyed intensity by Peter Sarsgaard), who proves he’s not a very nice man when he gatecrashes a church service and starts to kill off the parishioners with the help of his private army of mercenaries.
Haley Bennett (The Girl on a Train) is suitably spunky as a young widow driven to hire gunfighters with the right stuff. Men like bounty-hunting man in black Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), who proceeds to gather a wild bunch of professionals to do the job: a wise-ass gambler (Chris Pratt), a sharpshooter (Ethan Hawke, very good), a knife-wielding assassin (Lee Byung-hun), a crusty tracker (Vincent D’Onofrio), a Mexican outlaw (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and an exiled Comanche warrior (Martin Sensmeier).
Much has been made of the septet’s ethnic make-up in the wake of Hollywood’s diversity controversy at this year’s Oscars. However, Fuqua’s response at the recent Toronto Film Festival was “I just wanted to see Denzel on a horse!” and, to be fair, Washington sure fits his Stetson well. More interesting (and a reflection of our times) is the fact the villain is a grasping, vicious capitalist, much like the heavies in Pale Rider, Open Range and many a spaghetti western.
Fuqua knows how to produce polished action entertainment, so the gunplay is well edited and explosively executed as the six-gun saviours battle a seemingly inexhaustible supply of gunslingers. Washington is his usual charismatic self and his scenes with Hawke (as a fellow Civil War veteran) have the most dramatic substance. Meanwhile, D’Onofrio, as a strangely eunuchoidal-sounding scalp-hunter (wittily described as “a bear wearing people’s clothes”) is hard to ignore, particularly when he emulates Mongo from Blazing Saddles during the first skirmish with Bogue’s minions.
But when you decide to refit a western like John Sturges’s Magnificent Seven, it means there are some big boots to fill. Never mind that the original movie had a superstar cast to die for in Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson and Robert Vaughn (and the new seven is not an exact fit with the old), the script was packed with memorable lines (a few of which crop up here) and then, of course, there was Elmer Bernstein’s unforgettably rousing music. The score here, by the late James Horner (his last), is adequate and occasionally threatens to break into Bernstein’s, but it is only at the end that the classic theme bursts into fervent life.
It’s then you realise how essential that instantly recognisable score was in forging the reputation of the Sturges film. Fuqua’s rendition delivers plenty of quick-draw action and is respectful to the source material; it just can’t challenge the epic romanticism or magnificence of the 60s classic.
The Magnificent Seven is released in cinemas on Friday 23 September