As Hollywood continues its obsession with remaking and rebooting classic films, the conversation will continue about the best and worst examples of this phenomenon. John Carpenter's The Thing and David Cronenberg's The Fly are consistently raised as examples of how to do it correctly, while more recent remakes like Total Recall and RoboCop are widely seen as wastes of time that give their predecessors a bad name. Antoine Fuqua's The Magnificent Seven falls into the latter camp. It's a soulless retread that not only fails to justify its existence, but fails to excite, inspire, charm, or otherwise elicit any emotion aside from contempt. This may be one of the most tedious action movies I've ever seen.
The Magnificent Seven
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Haley Bennett, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Peter Sarsgaard
It's easy to understand how executives might think this could work. The Magnificent Seven is a well-liked movie (with a kickass theme song) that's already a remake of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, so a modern remake is, in theory, an excellent showcase for a handful of today's charismatic actors to ride horses, wear cool clothes, spin six-guns around their fingers, and blow stuff up. Throw in actors like Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, and Byung-hun Lee, and it seems like a no-brainer, right? The trouble is, with a barely passable script by True Detective's Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk, and atrocious direction by Fuqua, the movie actually is a no-brainer — the best way to describe the film may be comparing it to a zombie corpse shambling around in a cowboy costume.
Rarely have I seen a mainstream studio movie that looks so profoundly ugly. Mauro Fiore's cinematography, which seems to be occasionally dragged through a honey-yellow filter, is practically overflowing with close-ups; while western master Sergio Leone used them to build tension, Fuqua uses them as his default framing for normal conversations. There's no additional layer of meaning to be gleaned by this film's camera placement, and absolutely no power in the visual storytelling. Fuqua has done something impressive here: he's chosen the most mediocre way possible to shoot this movie. It's functional, but there's nothing to it.
Great films give you the sense that their directors had so much passion for that story that they'd die if they weren't able to tell it their way. I don't know why Fuqua was hired to direct this movie, but at no point did I ever see anything that indicated he had any passion for telling this story. This feels like director-for-hire work of the worst kind. But that alone shouldn't be enough to destroy this movie. I'm sure there have been plenty of iconic films which had journeyman directors come in, do their work, and clock out, and those movies became iconic because of a terrific script or great performances. That's not the case here. The cast, which has tremendous potential to be charismatic, funny, and fun together (like Ocean's Eleven on horseback), is held hostage by a script that's more concerned with dully setting up its exhausting climactic battle than making us care about anyone who will be involved with it.
You know the story, so I won't go into the details. Washington and Pratt are fine, but Haley Bennett comes off as little more than a Jennifer Lawrence knock off. D'Onofrio adopts one of the most bizarre accents I've heard in years, and Hawke barely registers as a frazzled Confederate soldier with PTSD. Peter Sarsgaard's comically over-the-top villain is so one dimensional it would have worked just as well to replace him with a life-sized cardboard cut-out of him in all of his scenes. Almost no one has a satisfying arc, and when it finally comes down to a mano y mano battle at the very end, the movie cops out and doesn't answer the only interesting moral question raised in the whole thing.
Once the shooting starts, you'll be astonished at how many faceless bad guys meet their doom. I went into this movie thinking it might not be great, but at least hoping to see some entertaining shootouts; Fuqua couldn't even deliver on that front, because every action scene feels eternal. So many bullets fly that you become numb to the chaos. Watching the movie becomes a waiting game, an endurance test to see if you can stay awake through the predictable, monotonous shootouts to see if anything interesting happens afterward. Spoiler alert — nothing does.
In one scene, Pratt's character watches a group of untrained townspeople learn how to fire guns to defend their town from the bad guys. After they all shoot at their targets and miss, he quips something about how "Statistically speaking, at least one of them should have hit something." It's an apt metaphor for this movie as a whole. Statistically speaking — considering the sheer amount of talent involved here — they should have been able to generate at least a few worthwhile moments. But Fuqua and company couldn't hit the filmmaking equivalent of the broad side of a barn at ten paces.