‘The Magnificent Seven’ Delights in All Possible Ways (FILM REVIEW)

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It’s too bad that The Magnificent Seven wasn’t released in, say, July. Late September, usually reserved for the start of Oscar bait season, belies the true nature of Antione Fuqua’s marvelous interpretation of the classic story. This Denzel Washington led remake (of a remake) offers up some of the most delicious fun that’s hit movie screens this year, and a mid-July release date might have saved this past summer from being the soporific and uninteresting mess that it was.

Tonally speaking, The Magnificent Seven makes more sense as a summer tent pole, rather than as a kickoff of fall. It’s an unabashed popcorn delight that deftly combines cinematic artistry with the sense of awestruck wonder for which movies should always strive. I grinned, stupidly, until my face hurt, overtaken by Fuqua’s masterful update that is infused, in every frame, by pure delight.

Which is great news for the fall season. Autumn tends to be jam packed with dreary dramas that, while often thought provoking and “important,” tend to forget that there’s a magic weaved from the moments the houselights dim and the screen begins to flicker. That the reflective glow of the screen is a vessel of transportation, first and foremost, is a fact too often forgotten in the mad rush for Oscar consideration. Fuqua remembers though. And he remembers well.

The question of necessity is dismissed almost from the moment the film begins. Fuqua understands, intensely, that the story of The Magnificent Seven was perfected once already, all the way back in 1954, in Japan. Akira Kurosawa’s classic tale of a town beset by evil has been remade, retold, and been paid homage near to death by popular culture in the 60 years since Seven Samurai changed Japanese film forever. You know the story, so in that sense, no, The Magnificent Seven is not necessary. But so what?

There’s a simple elegance to the tale that ensures that it not only works, but will always work, from now until the end of days. Kurosawa’s original film played beautifully to our collective sense of right and wrong, and of justice. This was of course imitated, beautifully, in the 1960 remake, The Magnificent Seven, from director John Sturges. While Fuqua’s vision certainly owes a debt to Sturges—it is a western, after all—it succeeds mostly due to its reverence to Kurosawa.

While Fuqua shoots his film in a way that recalls the heydays of the American Western genre, it’s important to consider that the genre was, in turn, inspired by the larger than life scope of Kurosawa’s vision. Between Seven Samurai and Yojimbo (later remade by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars), the cinematic lexicon of Kurosawa was, perhaps, the most influential on the classic westerns we all know and love stateside, and it’s Kurosawa’s lexicon that Fuqua borrows from most freely.

Far from being mere homage, however, Fuqua brings his own unique visual flair to the screen. Here is a director at the height of his powers, harnessing his skills in a way that bridges past and present in remarkable ways. The Magnificent Seven could not have been presented as it is without the benefit of modernity in cinematic technique, but he uses those techniques to evoke the feelings of classic cinema.

What Fuqua, and, in turn, the film itself (thanks to a marvelous script from True Detective’s Nic Pizzolatto and frequent Fuqua collaborator Richard Wenk) also understands is that you already know the story. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel because the wheel was already invented. It doesn’t waste your time assuming you need the story reimagined or reexplained. Instead, what it focuses on is bringing the story the life through its characters.

The seven heroes assembled here, each of them playing off classic western tropes—Washington as the bounty hunting marshal, Chris Pratt as the drunken gambler, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as the wandering vaquero, Vincent D’Onofrio as the grizzled mountain man, Ethan Hawke as the former confederate Cajun, Byung-hun Lee as the Asian immigrant making his way in a strange land, and Martin Sensmeier as the Indian warrior—are the driving force of the story, and each actor appears to be having the time of their life. None, perhaps, more than Peter Sarsgaard as the villainous Bartholomew Bogue, the unscrupulous robber baron whose murderous atrocities unite these disparate heroes.

In the hands of less skilled actors, it would be easy to argue that the characters of The Magnificent Seven are flat. Outside of Washington, Pratt, and Hawke, none of the characters are presented with much depth, but each actor brings a surprise to their character that increases their dimension by leaps and bounds. D’Onofrio, in particular, gives a near transcendent performance as mountain man Jack Horne. “I believe that bear’s wearing people’s clothes,” quips Pratt’s Faraday, in one of the more perfect character descriptions in recent memory. But far from being merely the big guy (which, to be clear, he really is), D’Onofrio creates something truly marvelous by adding his own unique spin on the mountain man/prospector trope.

Which is something of a metaphor for the entire film. Everything is familiar and recognizable, but it’s presented in a way that’s wholly unique and charming. Through this, The Magnificent Seven justifies itself. It doesn’t matter that you know the story already; it doesn’t matter that it’s been told in just about every conceivable medium. Nor does it matter what you think or mean when you refer to “the original”. Whether you’re speaking of Seven Samurai or of the Sturges film, Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven carves its own niche, respecting its forebears while doing its own thing. In doing so, it updates this classic tale of justice in way that makes it palatable and relevant to the current generation and its current problems. Regardless your feelings on remakes, The Magnificent Seven is a fine example of what a remake ought to be, and one of the most fun times you’ll have a movie this year.

The Magnificent Seven is now playing in theaters everywhere.

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