To make a successful old time Western, maybe the best way is to remake a classic. Who can forget that illustrious story about a few gunmen hired to save a small town from a really bad hombre? No, not the “!Three Amigos!” (1986). We’re talking about “The Magnificent Seven” (1960), with Yul Brenner, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson.
The rousing theme song, which is one of the most memorable of all time, was worth the price of admission alone. Fortunately, it is reprised during the final credits of this new feature. For the record, both these blockbusters were remade from the Japanese original, “The Seven Samurai” (1954) with the magnificent Tishiro Mifune.
This cast offers something unique from Westerns of the 60s. Academy Award winner Denzel Washington carries enough heft and gravitas to warrant the grand entrance provided by his former producer-director Anton Fuqua from “Training Day” (2001). Better yet, actors of each respective ethnicity play roles of the Mexican (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Alaskan-Indian (Martin Sensmeier), and Asian (Byung-hun Lee) team members.
Rising superstar Chris Pratt melds easily into the co-starring role as Josh Faraday while Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio round out the seven. Their nemesis is the wicked mining boss, Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who might as well be Snidely Whiplash. Sarsgaard says he enjoys playing bizarre unstable characters.
Naturally, we expect masterful cinematography. Mauro Fiore (“Training Day,” “Avatar”), who captures his scenes with a gorgeous Arizona backdrop, does not disappoint. Writers Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto thankfully include so many Western clichés that make a Western a Western. Yet, this old fashioned film feels contemporary.
In the fictional town of Rose Creek, gold mining magnate Bogue and his thugs terrorize the locals. Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) watches as her husband is shot dead in cold blood. The desperate widow hires sharp shooting Sam Chisolm (Washington), who asks, “So you seek revenge?” She responds, “I seek righteousness. But I’ll take revenge.”
As Chisolm assembles his team of bounty hunters, gamblers, outlaws and hired guns, we are introduced to each individual character, their quirky personalities and unique skill sets. The story slowly builds, but more important, the angst and humor helps build the chemistry amongst this team that faces an almost certain death.
As they prepare for the violent showdown, the seven mercenaries find themselves fighting for much more than money. First, it’s training day for the townsfolk who need to assist. Mostly farmers, they are ill-equipped and untrained to fight a battle. Honoring classic films, the good guys are good and bad guys are very bad.
As the tension builds, the epic battle begins. Bogue brings in hundreds of henchmen to overwhelm the seven. Early in the skirmish, good guys are expert marksmen while bad guys can’t hit much of anything; it’s almost a turkey shoot. The extended shootout is impressively choreographed, but by the end, it just looks a lot like the Gettysburg battlefield. It’s violent, but fortunately it’s not a Quentin Tarantino blood-fest.
“The Magnificent Seven” is 132 minutes and rated PG-13 for extended and intense sequences of Western violence, smoking and language. This is solid entertainment but not necessarily magnificent. Inspired by the script, composer James Horner completed the entire score prior to final production, just before his untimely death at age 61.
Set in 1869, a former Confederate soldier references “The War of Northern Aggression,” which is what some in the South still call The Civil War. Boque asks how we equate democracy with capitalism, then with God; which justifies his unmitigated pursuit of gold. W.C. Fields once told of his Army days, “What a battle, three against a thousand. We survived those 24 long hours. Toughest three guys we ever fought.