On the surface, director Antoine Fuqua's The Magnificent Seven may seem another ill-advised remake of a classic Hollywood movie. Producers and studio executives typically justify the practice by explaining that today's audiences just aren't familiar with many of the all-time-great films. That argument doesn't apply to John Sturges' original 1960 Western The Magnificent Seven, because the film is anything but an all-time great.
There's no denying the popularity of the original The Magnificent Seven throughout the '60s, when it became a mainstay of network television — only The Wizard of Oz was broadcast more frequently during that time. The Magnificent Seven introduced a wide audience to a pack of soon-to-be-adored movie stars, including Steve McQueen, Eli Wallach, James Coburn and Robert Vaughn. Brilliant casting aside, the film is hokey, superficial and long-winded. Modern classics like Billy Wilder's The Apartment and Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho were released the same year.
Ironically, that means the original The Magnificent Seven — itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, transferred to the old West — may not be a poor candidate for a makeover. A new version might recognize the original's weaknesses, placing a stronger emphasis on character and story in the style of the finest Hollywood Westerns. Fuqua's The Magnificent Seven is not that film.
Like its predecessors, The Magnificent Seven tells the story of a small, isolated town targeted by a profit-hungry villain with a small army in tow. In a nod to the modern era, the film replaces the small-time bandits of old with corporate-style raider Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). Bogue takes land from the locals for a fraction of its value to maintain his mining company's revenue stream, offhandedly shooting those who complain. Newly widowed Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) hires bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) to assemble a ragtag band of gun-wielding misfits willing to put an end to Bogue's tyranny.
Fuqua repeats many of Sturges' mistakes. The characters are too thinly drawn to generate much interest despite the best efforts of a capable cast. Washington makes an appealing cowboy, while Ethan Hawke and South Korean superstar Byung-Hun Lee make their brooding presence count even when the screenplay fails them.
And fail them it does. The screenplay brings an unwelcome militarism to The Magnificent Seven's familiar tale. The good guys in Sturges' movie at least make an effort to outsmart the enemy. The remake transforms the conflict into a brutal war in which those with bigger guns claim primary advantage.
There are dozens (if not hundreds) of individually choreographed deaths in the film and endless screen time for the carnage. Too many of today's action movies become war films in their final acts, and The Magnificent Seven seems content to embrace the trend as if audiences required a bloodbath before heading home. There are better ways to tell a story, or frame a physical conflict.
Maybe remaking a remake is just asking for trouble, especially when the original source is Seven Samurai. Kurosawa's film may be an art-house classic, but it's also an easy-to-enjoy mass entertainment. That is something Hollywood might emulate more often with its blockbuster films.