As Westerns go, usually it's the villains who enjoy killing people. That's not the case in the latest incarnation of The Magnificent Seven, which seems to take pleasure in depicting gruesome murders committed by its squad of frontier heroes. Directed by gore-hound Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), the film plays like a highlight reel of ways to die in the West (didn't Seth McFarlane already make this movie?). Tomahawk to the chest, arrow to the neck and gunshot to the temple are just a few of the tamer examples.
The year is 1879, and ex-Union soldier and bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) has seen his fair share of violence working the Nebraska territories. So when a desperate young lass named Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) offers him a bag full of cash to help reclaim her town of Rose Creek from brutal mining baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), he hardly bats an eye. Whether that's the script's laziness or part and parcel with Fuqua's overall indifference to cause and effect is anyone's guess.
Much of the first act finds Chisolm filling out his roster of roughneck protectors to assist. Naturally, it's a diverse group: There's wisecracking drunken gambler Josh Farraday (Chris Pratt), traumatized Confederate sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), Comanche stoic Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Korean assassin Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), and the hulking tracker/scalp-hunter Jack Horne (Vincent DíOnofrio).
Each man's initial interest seems based on the haul (money and gold) they'd steal from the mining outfit after securing victory. Their greed and selfishness quickly takes second fiddle to the act of killing. In one gunfight, each of the manly lead characters competes to see how many henchmen they can kill. Body counts don't seem as important in the climactic gun battle that pits Chisolm's rag tag army of misfits and farmers against nearly a hundred hired killers. It may be carnage committed in the name of honor and justice, but in this case those are just fancy words for sadism.
The film's flippant attitude toward savagery doesn't stop there. Pressed with little time to prepare for Bogue's advance on Rose Creek, Chisolm and company attempt to train the local farmers on how to kill effectively. The sequence provides enough folly for a slapstick comedy, with the rural townspeople firing indiscriminately and getting lambasted for their incompetence and weakness. "Man-up" or be permanently shamed.
Fuqua avoids delving into the characters backstories, except in one scene where Chisolm and old friend Robicheaux discuss the demons of Antietam battlefield that still resonate. Even this one failed grasp at complexity is inevitably used to set up a conventional redemptive plot twist that lets a genuinely tormented man off the hook despite his past actions.
Fuqua is capable of giving his action heroes a level of psychological complexity (see Mark Walhberg's framed sniper in Shooter). But the director doesn't stop to think about why each of his heroes has so much rage in their eyes.
Chisolm and Faraday end up harkening from the same psychotic family tree as Washington's serial killing vigilante in Fuqua's The Equalizer. That's abhorrent company to keep. If their actions are any indication, the heroes become indistinguishable from Bogue himself, a capitalist demagogue who is a cross between John D. Rockefeller and Patrick Bateman.
The Magnificent Seven, opening Friday Sept. 23, comes from very good stock—Akira Kurosawa's 1954 masterpiece Seven Samurai set in feudal Japan inspired John Sturges' Wild West re-appropriation in a 1960 remake starring Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner. This makes Fuquaís failure all the more damning.
When the smoke settles, bodies pave the streets of Rose Creek. Ambiguity also enters a state of decomposition. Fuqua may show a feigned interest in genre subversion—Chisolm's surviving marauders represent America's most oppressed minorities. But that's where the subtext ends. This tired old reboot only cares about getting the next kill shot.