by ALEX CARNEVALE
The amount of talking in The Magnificent Seven is truly impressive. Someone is moving their mouth every single second in Antoine Fuqua’s version of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. The original version is the most tolerable of Kurosawa’s westerns, which were revolutionary for their time but never compared favorably with American iterations that perfected the genre. Kurosawa too was fond of the endless throes of dialogue, but this chatty aesthetic demands a cast of actors who can pull off this mealy-mouthed script by Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective).
When you think of the sheer number of conversations in this movie which accomplished absolutely nothing, you begin to realize that all the talking is purely for show. Watching The Magnificent Seven with no sound would be just as easy, and the only thing missed would be having to listen to the completely shitty accent Chris Pratt has brought to the role of Faraday.
As the staid and boring marshal putting together this dream time to seek revenge on robber baron Bart Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), Denzel Washington is completely miscast. His white co-stars get the vast majority of cute quips, but the filmmakers seem to force humor into the diegesis: this is more a sad story than a funny one, and a dramatic opening scene in which Bart Bogue murders Matt Bomer emphasizes this is no buddy movie.
Unlike most directors, Fuqua has no fear of using music to set the mood or situation. He is deeply afraid that The Magnificent Seven might become dreadfully boring if the tension, humor or speech were to drop for a second. There is a moment where the group looks out on the operation of Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke collecting what I hope is a mighty check) and a horse nuzzles the ground with his paw. The presence of authentic moment is almost shocking because there is no dirt, disease, or poverty in this edition of the American West.
Kurosawa aimed at a different type of versimiltude. When his heroes moved through the grass, they felt it on their fingers and arms. Pizzolatto turns all of the characters here into verbose outlaws who converse at length in full sentences. “Let the shot surprise you,” explains Ethan Hawke at one point. I have no idea why or what this could mean. It is difficult to believe that anyone ever talked like this before the 21st century. “You have to hate what you’re firing at,” he screams.
Fuqua is a lot more at home when the action begins. The group first enters into a fight with the local lawmen of the town who permitted Sarsgaard to threaten the citizenry. Without a clear villain for most of the film’s running time, the focus is generally aimed at Pratt. He is a very charismatic centerpiece, and covering your ears slightly when he speaks makes his accent sound vaguely tolerable.
Learning more about these guys isn’t exactly fun. It’s implied that Hawke’s tiny character owned slaves, but this does not seem to bother Denzel any. No one so much as takes his shirt off, eats or goes to sleep, which turns them caricatures — just as they descend into parody, Fuqua ratches up the dramatic music so that we forget how stupid this all is. “It’s a box of death,” says someone. It could be anyone.
The film’s only happy surprise is the presence of Haley Bennett as a frisky townswoman. She has no actual agency except to beg men for her life, but coming off a breakout performance in the disaster that was last year’s Hardcore Henry, she shines. “I had a father, thank you,” she informs Chris Pratt, and the only potential interesting aspect of the narrative is destroyed. Fuqua makes her run around without a bra whenever the film starts to seem the slightest bit homoerotic. God forbid one man ever touch another, even if only in kindness.
I really don’t know whose idea it was to kill off important characters, since there was serious potential in a sequel that could have been, you know, an actual Western. (Then again, box office receipts haven’t been particularly amazing.) This revenge plot of hired men defending a town was always pretty lame, and Kurosawa basically used it as a excuse for everything else his film contained. It did not matter that the story was purely background since his filmmaking offered so much else. Here there is just basic revenge, except the man they are trying to kill gets one scene at the beginning of the movie and then shows up suddenly at the end.
Then again, neither Fuqua nor Pizzolatto seem terribly interested in this time period or material. Working with a budget of $100 million, it seems obvious most of it was spent on the cast. Production values are not noticeably different than films made fifty or sixty years ago, and performances are substantially worse. The film’s climatic finale is perhaps its most disappointing element. Watching a Comache sling arrows at a bunch of cornered men, it feels like the enemy is completely outnumbered.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.