Thursday, December 8, 2016

A Remake of A Remake of A Remake, or Thoughts on Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven

As you are well aware, The Magnificent Seven (2016) draws its original inspiration from the 1960 original, which in turn was essentially an Americanized version of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954).  It still makes sense today, equating the samurai of feudal Japan with the cowboys of the American West.  They’re two heroic archetypes with cool weapons who live by a code, and that premise leaves a lot of room for exciting stories to tell.
In this update the Man in Black is a literal black man, as Denzel Washington dons Yul Brunner’s (and now Ed Harris’) black hat and takes on the role of the lone stranger.  Denzel is so beloved his blackness is secondary, like Morgan Freeman he is not defined by his ethnicity and portrays the bounty hunter Sam Chisholm with his confident, easy professionalism. 
The Seven have also been updated; this is a diverse, inclusive, melting pot vision of the American West that reflects 21st Century values.  The Golden Age westerns are problematic; it’s hard to root for an all white cast in movies that are basically promoting genocide.  This remake attempts to address those issues but doesn’t dwell on them, and after quick introductions moves on to the action; the horses, the shoot-outs, the steely gazes, and most essential, good guys standing up to bullies.
Denzel is supported by a first rate cast including Vincent D’Onofrio, Ethan Hawke and Peter Saarsgard from Orphan (2009) as Bartholomew Bogue, the evil mine owner.  Chris Pratt takes over the Steve McQueen role as Joshua Faraday, with a likeable, non-threatening heroic presence.  Korean actor Lee Byung-hun, most famous in the States for Storm Shadow in GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) is Billy Rocks, the knife expert, no more incongruous than David Carradine’s Kwai Chang Caine.  Haley Bennet is the comely farmer Emma Cullen, who hires Sam Chisholm to defend her town.  I spent the whole movie confusing her with Jennifer Lawrence.
Antoine Fuqua, who made his directorial debut with The Replacement Killers (1998, with John Woo) and went on to make Training Day (2001), Olympus Has Fallen (2013) and another remake, The Equalizer (2014), also updated (or threw away) the original themes of a dying breed in a changing world having one last adventure.  Instead of fighting bandits, this new Seven or fighting evil corporate shills.  The original Seven were the last of their kind, the Wild West was being civilized and had no place for gunslingers, and in this movie those same civilizing forces (railroads, infrastructure, law and order) are actually corrupt and need to be stopped.
Hollywood seems determined to bring the western back, with updates like The Hateful Eight (2015) and HBO’s brilliant Westworld remake.  My primary criticism is that this movie works as western without the title and the baggage it brings with it.  This story has been told effectively in movies like the ¡Three Amigos! (1986), or even transferred into space.  By establishing this as a remake you invite the inevitable comparisons to a movie that is in every critic’s top ten list of westerns, and is firmly entrenched in American cinematic history.  Those are some big boots to fill, and will only lead to disappointment.
And then again, maybe movies are becoming our theater, and now we tell these stories over and over again, like Shakespeare or an updated Rocky Horror Picture Show (2016).  Perhaps the story transcends the medium, and next we'll have an all female Magnificent Seven like this year's Ghostbusters.  We're living in the future, kids, and anything's possible.




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