A sense of lethargy hangs uneasily over the lumbering new version of “The Magnificent Seven.” Despite its sturdy plot, seasoned director and capable cast toplined by Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke, it arrives in a comatose state, a film unlikely to arouse passions one way or another.
Though the original 1960 Western and its tale of seven hired guns defending a bucolic hamlet beleaguered by bandits is much beloved, it is hardly a sacred object that shouldn’t be touched. Itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s classic “Seven Samurai,” it spawned no fewer than three sequels plus a CBS-TV series, not to mention the occasional odd item such as 1983’s Lou Ferrigno-starring “The Seven Magnificent Gladiators.”
And director Antoine Fuqua and screenwriters Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk are nothing if not respectful toward the past. Washington’s Sam Chisolm dresses all in black, just like star Yul Brynner in the 1960 version, a few choice lines of dialogue are reprised, and even Elmer Bernstein’s knockout theme reappears (with an 87-piece orchestra, no less) at the film’s close.
The problem has little to do with the original, which benefited from the lightning-in-a-bottle phenomenon of early film work by future stars Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and Robert Vaughan. It’s that a way hasn’t been found to bring this iteration to vibrant life.
Though a fan of Westerns since childhood, director Fuqua, best known for the deft urban action aesthetic he’s brought to films like “The Equalizer” and “Training Day” (which won an Oscar for Washington) is definitely not a genre traditionalist.
With an attitude that owes more to Sergio Leone and even Quentin Tarantino than John Ford, Fuqua and his writers have chosen to push arch, posturing humor much too hard, for instance casting Chris Pratt, so effective in “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Jurassic World,” as wild and crazy Josh Faraday, a man who never met a bad joke he didn’t like.
The problem with all this pleased-with-itself mirth, aside from being not particularly funny, is that it telegraphs that the film doesn’t trust its material enough to play it straight. For “The Magnificent Seven” to be effective, we have to make an emotional connection to both the defenseless town and the tarnished knights who come to its rescue, and this does not happen.
Certainly the Western hamlet of Rose Creek is in dire need of help in 1879. Its dominant figure is gold mine owner and all-around predatory capitalist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who, not content with having the sheriff on his payroll and armed thugs at his beck and call, wants to drive the few remaining good citizens out of the place and own every square inch himself.
These terrified citizens meet at the local church, but the only thing that comes out of the meeting is a wholesale slaughter of innocents. With the men in town not knowing what to do, newly widowed Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) takes it on herself to find a solution.
In nearby Amador City, Cullen, who at times dresses like she’s headed for a West L.A. yoga class, runs into Sam Chisolm, an efficient killing machine with a bit of a conscience.
Given to identifying himself as “a duly sworn warrant officer from Wichita, Kan., and a licensed peace officer in Arkansas, Indian Territory, Nebraska and seven other states,” Chisholm is more or less a bounty hunter, willing to bring the bad guys in living or dead. “I seek righteousness, as should we all,” Cullen explains to him in one of the film’s few serious moments. “I’ll take revenge.”
Cullen’s plea (or maybe it’s her outfits) touches something in Chisolm and he starts to round up the gang, starting with Faraday, who takes time out from blowing someone’s ear off to sign on. The rest of the agreeably multicultural gang — "quite a bunch of strays,” as someone says — join up in short order.
These include a genial Mexican bandit (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a Confederate sharpshooter known as the Angel of Death (Ethan Hawke), a Korean knife-fighting virtuoso (Byung-hun Lee), a Falstaffian trapper (Vincent D’Onofrio) and a Comanche warrior at odds with his tribe (Martin Sensmeier).
These seven men all have back stories, some of them revealed immediately, some down the road, but as presented here none are particularly compelling.
More effective, though only sporadically, is the violence that is part and parcel of this film’s story. Defending innocent villagers is a fraught proposition, and everyone acts accordingly once the shooting starts. It’s not that these people couldn’t make an engrossing Western; they simply haven’t.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for extended and intense sequences of Western violence and for historical smoking.
Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes.
In general release.