(l to r) Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Ethan Hawke, Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Vincent D'Onofrio and Martin Sensmeier in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Columbia Pictures' THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.
It’s hard to believe, but this new version of The Magnificent Seven managed to take all of the tension out of a “last stand” scenario. And since the movie is about almost nothing else, there’s very little reason to watch this film outside of seeing your favorite actors and needing to kill time. Neither of those are very compelling reasons to get audiences to the theater. The Magnificent Seven looks good, and there are a couple of standout performances, but that’s about it.
The small town of Rose Creek lives in fear under the rule of heartless industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). Bogue and his men occupy the territory, extracting gold from a nearby mine. He gives the people of Rose Creek three weeks to leave, and when some stand up to him, Bogue and his men cut down the townsfolk and burn down their church. Desperate for a way to save her town, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), hires bounty hunter Chisolm (Denzel Washington), who seems to have a history with Bogue. Chisolm accepts Emma’s proposition, but knowing what he’s up against, Chisolm begins recruiting skilled allies, like gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), Chinese knife fighter Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), and others. Together they make a last stand with the people of Rose Creek against overwhelming numbers and firepower.
Trouble starts for the film early on. It has a decent opening with the villains performing heinous acts of violence followed by Chisolm slowly riding into a different town to collect a bounty where he guns down several men in a saloon. The scenes are engrossing, dynamic, and exciting. But then the film slows way down to introduce all of the members who make up the Magnificent Seven. For some reason Chris Pratt gets the lion’s share of screen time, performing magic tricks, giving lessons on gun fighting, and getting into squabbles with people he owes money to. Typically, long introductions to characters would be welcome in a film like this, but none of the introductions help establish the characters in any satisfying way or explain why these men in particular are the best choices for fighting an army. The introductions don’t push the plot forward either, so why are these scenes necessary?
In fact, “Why?” is the consistent question that will nag audiences throughout the film. Why would characters agree to face certain death when they can avoid it? One might do it out of duty, like Emma fighting for her town. One might do it for the chance at something greater, like revenge, which is why Chisolm does it. Sadly, those are the only two motives that come across as believable in the film. Others agree to join the fight for various reasons. Goodnight joins out of some emotional connection with Chisolm, but there’s such little interaction between the two that audiences don’t feel the relationship built on years of history. Faraday is ostensibly motivated by a big payday, but he never questions how much he’s going get. Another compatriot, the outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), agrees to fight as long as Chisolm stops hunting him, but when they first meet, Vasquez had the drop on Chisolm and could have just killed him. So why not just do that instead of facing certain death if all Vasquez is getting out of this is Chisolm not chasing him? The film doesn’t even bother giving reasons for tracker Jack Horne or the Comanche Indian Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) for joining. They just tag along because they apparently don’t value their lives. When audiences feel like characters are scripted, it makes it difficult to care whether or not those characters live or die.
Antoine Fuqua is a fine action director, and there are enough explosions, gun shots, and stabbings to keep fans of movie violence sated. Moreover, all of the action sequences are filmed clearly and viscerally so audiences can really enjoy every movement. When not filming the action, Fuqua doesn’t quite capture the majesty of the Old West, but he certainly brings the grit and desperation to life. His vision of a “diverse” Old West feels too much like an anachronism, however. It’s made worse when no racial epithets are hurled at any of the non-white cast. The immediate acceptance of all the minorities feels like a modern convention wished into the reality of a different time.
Some of the cast turn in remarkable performances. Haley Bennett in particular manages to provide the humanity in the film all by herself, with her palpable loss and desire to be made whole. Surprisingly, Vincent D’Onofrio makes his minor character interesting by playing him a little kooky, with a frail voice. Regrettably, Denzel Washington is the least interesting actor here, with a character who seems to have no weakness. His desire for revenge doesn’t seem to cloud his judgment or make him emotional. He’s completely flat throughout the film, and that’s disappointing from an actor of his caliber.
For a film like The Magnificent Seven, which builds up to a last stand where characters have a high chance of dying, it’s necessary to build up relationships and histories so that audiences have something to invest in emotionally. And while the film does attempt to build camaraderie among the seven, it comes too late when relationships should have been forming along the way. Mistakes like this can lose the audience; constantly making these mistakes definitely will. Good storytelling is all about knowing what details to give the audience and what to leave out. Unfortunately, The Magnificent Seven made the wrong decisions too many times to forgive.