In many ways it has never left, but director Antoine Fuqua’s phenomenal remake of The Magnificent Seven reestablishes the Western as a cinematic force that demands attention. By teaming up with Denzel Washington (who won an Oscar under Fuqua’s direction in Training Day) as the leader of a group of misfit but highly able gunslingers, Fuqua captures our attention and doesn’t let us go for one moment.
The cold opening involves big bad rich guy Bartholomew Bogue (the always good at being bad Peter Sarsgaard) and his men descending on the town of Rose Creek, torching the church, killing townsfolk, and giving them an offer of $20 for their land our else. Bogue personally kills one of the men, and his widow Emma Cullen (a radiant Haley Bennett) will not go quietly away.
When we first see Washington’s Chisholm, he is coming down from the high country like a dark angel descending from the mountaintop. While this scene is reminiscent of the great classic Shane, from here on Fuqua liberally borrows from such films as True Grit, High Noon, My Darling Clementine, and probably all of Clint Eastwood’s Spaghetti Westerns (there are more than enough close-ups of gunslingers’ beady eyes to go around for everyone). None of this matters though, because Fuqua is paying loving homage to the genre and it is part of the film’s appeal and success.
Chisholm has a back story that we only get hints about, but as a man in black who is black, he defies the expectations of those he meets as a bounty hunter who is determined to get his man. When Emma approaches him and offers to pay him handsomely to help her get justice, Chisholm is at first reluctant, but when he hears Bogue’s name he suddenly has a change of heart, and for reasons that will only become apparent later he decides to assist Emma.
Chisholm begins rounding up a gang that can shoot straight and drink all night long. Recruiting card playing and hard drinking Josh Faraday (the fantastic Chris Pratt) after a bar altercation, the two of them go about rounding up the rest of the gang – mountain man Jack Horne (Vincent Donofrio), wanted man Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Chisholm’s former adversary during the Civil War Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), knife-throwing Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), and Native American Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). While each of these fellows is more than rough around the edges, they are just the right mix to take on Bogue and his army of thugs.
Of course, the rest is spoiler territory, but Fuqua manages to make the tension rise continuously as we march inexorably to the final showdown. Basically following a good deal from the 1960 film starring Yul Brynner, that story came from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, but writers Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk have added traits and quirks for the characters, and the dialogue is solid and sometimes downright beautiful. When Chisholm and Robicheaux try to sort out whatever went down between them in the war, Chisholm says it’s time to move on with these poetic words: “What we lost in the fire we found in the ashes.” Those kinds of memorable lines are threaded throughout the film.
Simon Franglen and James Horner’s lush score lends itself well to the landscapes captured so distinctively and breathtakingly by Mauro Fiore’s cinematography, and Rose Creek becomes a living and breathing place filled with smoking chimneys, dirty streets, and townspeople who seem to be genuinely from a time about 15 years after the Civil War.
The glue that holds the film together is Washington, who for so long has been a powerful presence on screen, but here his stature as Chisholm looms over all, and even the rag-tag group he has assembled seems in awe of him and follow out of respect. As they work together and formulate a plan to take on Bogue’s much larger army of hired killers, it becomes clear that this is the first time any of these men has ever really bonded with others and trusted someone other than themselves.
The Western has a unique place in American cinema, having had its popularity peak in the 50s and 60s, but it still reflects something about our country that is appealing. Yes, it was a time of cruelty, violence, and suffering, but it was also one where the frontier seemed to stretch on forever, where people with dreams could keep going until they wanted to stop, and then build something of a life for themselves. Of course, there would always be bad guys like Bogue who would want to stomp on their dreams and steal them away.
The Magnificent Seven is in some ways the sum of all the cinematic Westerns that came before it, but in another way it makes a case for a new era of films in the genre. With Washington in the saddle and the likes of Pratt, Hawke, and Donofrio at his side, you could not help but want some more helpings of this slice of American pie that still tastes mighty damn good.