Black Westerns: The Magnificent Seven (2015)

I heard complaints about "The Magnificent Seven" being remade when this 2015 version hit the screens. Remake complaints are always odd to me — nobody goes to the theater to see a new production of "Hamlet" and says, ugh, why did this need to be remade? But complaints about this film seemed especially odd.

After all, "The Magnificent Seven" seems to have a history that is nothing but remakes. If it is possible to have a film that has no original source material, but instead was always a remake of a remake, this is it. After all, the original 1960 film was a remake of the superlative Akira Kurosawa film "The Seven Samurai."

That film, along with "Yojimbo," likely borrowed elements from Dashiell Hammett's crime novel "Red Harvest," and Hammett was, in turn, influenced by Henry James, essentially plugging his experiences as a Pinkerton detective into James' world of corrupt old money rubbing up against the brashness and newness of America. And from James, we work our way back through the entirety of English literature.

Additionally, between ""Red Harvest" and "The Magnificent Seven," we probably have the most remade source material ever, with the following films stemming from these sources: "Roadhouse Nights," " A Fistful of Dollars," "Last Man Standing," "Blood Simple," "Miller's Crossing," "Samurai 7," "A Bug's Life ," and the forthcoming Justice League movie.

Additionally, there were three sequels to "The Magnificent Seven," Yul Brynner played essentially his character from the film in both "Westworld" movies, and Robert Vaughn reprised his character from the film in two "Magnificent Seven" knockoffs, "Battle Beyond the Stars" and "The Magnificent Eleven," as well as playing a different role in a television series based on "The Magnificent Seven."

"The Magnificent Seven" has an unusually plastic core story, that of a desperate village paying outlaws and gunmen to protect them, with the first part of the film dedicated to gathering up a group of antiheroes, and the second part of the film dedicated to turning them into heroes as they defend the innocent villagers.

In truth, but for its rousing theme song and the undeniable charisma of its cast, I never found the original "Magnificent Seven" to be more than a diverting Western, with a somewhat excessive brownface performance from Eli Wallach as the film's Mexican villain. Some characters are badly underused, such as James Coburn's knife expert, who barely gets to knife anybody, and some just seem out of place, such as Brad Dexter's blustering fortune seeker, who was apparently only in the film as a favor to Frank Sinatra.

That being said, I don't think the 2015 "Magnificent Seven" is much of an improvement. The Mexican village is replaced with a generic and somewhat characterless Western frontier town, and Eli Wallach's weirdly bombastic performance is swapped out for Peter Sarsgaard, turning in an even weirder performance. Sarsgaard plays a corrupt industrialist, and I like my cowboy movies with a slight anticapitalist viewpoint, but Sarsgaard's acting decisions are fairly incomprehensible here. He has the downbeat mannerisms of a heroin addict and genuinely looks bored by everything. By the end of the film, his skin is so mottled that he seems like he might have fallen asleep in a grave and just been left there for several weeks.

The Seven themselves are entertaining, albeit cartoonish. There were some complaints, by the sorts of people who complain about these things, that the film seemed cast for the sake of racial diversity. This is a weird film to lodge that complaint against, as, after all, the original film was Japanese and the American cowboy remake was set in Mexico, most of its supporting characters were Mexican, the villains were Mexican, and two of the seven main cast members were Mexican characters.

If anything, because the Mexican village has been replaced with one in America, there are less people of color in supporting roles. The Magnificent Seven themselves are only slightly more diverse, as, of course, the film stars Denzel Washington, and the gang includes a Korean knife fighter (Byung-hun Lee), a Mexican pistolero (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and a Native American with superb archery skills (Martin Sensmeier, playing a character named Red Harvest!)

Still, that's only two more people of color in the Seven that in the original film, and probably a better representation of the actual diversity of the American West than the original film offered. Filling out the cast are Chris Pratt as a gambler, Ethan Hawke as a troubled veteran, and Vincent D'Onofrio as a mountain man, a character written to be weird and made even weirder by D'Onofrio's acting choices, which include a high, excitable voice.

Denzel Washington is, of course, a tremendous leading man, boasting a rare combination of exceptional personal charisma and profound acting chops, although this film, sadly, demands more of the former than the latter from him. Washington previously worked with this film's director, Antoine Fuqua, and their first collaboration together, "Training Day," gave Washington an acting tour de force.

Here, Washington mostly just needs to be credible in leather cowboy duds while riding a horse and bossing people around, and he makes it look effortless. This isn't really Washington's first Western — he sort of made one with the science fiction film "The Book of Eli," which was even marketed as a post-apocalyptic Western. Arguably "Magnificent Seven" is a better film, but, I think, a less interesting one. "Book of Eli" had a certain overbaked balminess to it, while "Magnificent Seven" often feels undercooked.

Most criminally, the film's characters feel sketched in, and while the lead actors have a surplus of personal charm, few of them, with the exception of D'Onofrio, make any surprising acting choices, and Ethan Hawke's battle-shocked character is the only one who feels as though he has any sort of an arc.

There are hints at conflict between the characters, with the group containing both Union and Confederate soldiers, Pratt and Garcia-Rulfo occasionally acting vaguely racist toward each other, and D'Onofrio as an Indian-hunter shooting wary eyes at Sensmeier.

But while Tarantino, to his credit, introduced these sorts of elements as festering wounds in "The Hateful Eight," presenting them as still-painful injuries that nobody could avoid picking at, leading to inevitable violence, here these conflicts are gestured at and dropped.

And so what we are left with is spectacular action, and Fuqua is not untalented at this: The climactic raid on the village, which has been booby trapped and has armed villagers hidden throughout, is well-staged, although it throws all its booby traps out early and then sort of deteriorates into a cinematic gunfight, which feels well-trod.

The film could have stood to take some pointers from Takashi Miike's 2010 film "13 Assassins," which is a bit like "The Magnificent Seven" where, instead of being hired to protect a village, the Seven instead paid villagers to help them kill a dude. They also booby trap their village, but, thanks to Miike's relentless inventiveness, the surprises never let up: At one point, the heroes set fire to a group of cows and send the running at the villain as living bombs.

Admittedly, if you have an issue with torturing animals, this doesn't seem especially heroic. It is, however, magnificent.


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