If the superhero has replaced the cowboy as America’s movie icon, as some have suggested, perhaps the pendulum is about to swing back. In Antoine Fuqua’s lame remake of The Magnificent Seven (which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival Thursday night), a tortured hero takes on the nearly impossible job of defending innocent civilians from a sadistic villain, then goes door-to-door rounding up recruits to help him with the task. You can practically hear the pitch: It’s The Avengers set in the Wild West! Each member of this ragtag team has near-superhuman skills, too. Each of them is a crack shot with a rifle. One can perform miracles with a butterfly knife. Seeing one expert of such immense skill in a classical Western would not be uncommon. But seven of them? That’s the stuff of comic books.
One way that it’s different is that The Magnificent Seven is realistic in its bloodshed. The film’s opening is more gruesome than anything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Townsfolk hold a meeting in their church to brainstorm ways to deal with Bart Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), a brutal land baron who is offering to buy up their land at a pittance… or simply take it through murderous means. In the midst of their desperation, Bart walks in, all hell breaks loose, and one particularly good man winds up dead. His widow (Haley Bennett) seeks out bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), who has a mysterious history with Bart, to protect the town. “I seek righteousness,” she says. “But I’ll take revenge.” In other words: If she can’t protect her town, you can be damn sure she’ll avenge it.
Chisolm rounds up some old friends, a few new ones, and one old foe to take on Bart’s army of villains. There is Faraday (Chris Pratt), a wisecracking sleight-of-hand expert who prefers card tricks to gunplay; the exquisitely named Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), a traumatized Confederate soldier; Johnny Rocks (Byung-Hun Lee), the aforementioned knife expert; Red Harvest (Martin Sensemeier), a Comanche who has been inexplicably kicked out of his tribe; Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a Mexican outlaw with no distinguishing characteristics; and Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), a sparrow-voiced bear of a man who quotes scripture and exists in his own hemisphere.
Like a gunfighter on the losing end of a quickdraw, the film limps predictably towards its inevitable conclusion. Chisolm and his gang stage an initial battle with some of Bogue’s lackeys, leaving one survivor to run home and tell the tale. Certain that Bogue is bringing an army to take the village, the men set about training the townspeople to defend themselves. It all builds to a climactic battle scene that basically works as a standalone set piece but is so steeped in cliches it has no dramatic tension.
Although they are not helped by the blockbuster-by-numbers script, it’s hard to overstate just how poor the performances are. Washington phones in his entire performance, only summoning his trademark quiet intensity for the film’s penultimate scene. Even so, he is a far more commanding presence than Pratt, who, even as the comic relief, is far out of his depth in this reality. Only Ethan Hawke emerges from this mess unscathed, but that might be because his is the only character with an arc.
In fact, most of these characters barely register as human at all for the first two-thirds of the film, in which they are virtually indestructible; Fuqua employs the cliche about villains who can’t shoot straight and heroes who can’t miss. In the final third, however, The Magnificent Seven finally shows its cojones, shrugging off Hollywood’s oppressive sequelism in favor of genuine stakes. That’s a small miracle, but the film needed a much bigger one to make up for this many sins.
Rating: 1.5 Dusty, Bloody Burritos out of 5
Featured Image: MGM/Columbia