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The Magnificent Seven (2016)

It took long enough, but I finally saw the original Magnificent Seven earlier this week. By which I mean the Yul Brenner classic western and not The Seven Samurai, which that film was loosely adapted from, if you follow me. Anyway, of course it still holds up, but there were places in which I thought the film was dated and didn’t really make much sense. How so? Well, let’s compare it to the 2016 remake.

In the original film, the plot centered around a town of naive Mexican farmers who are terrorized by a local crime boss. This naturally means a portrayal of Mexicans that would get any modern filmmaker straight-up fucking crucified. It also means that our antagonist comes with a massive price on his head (clearly mentioned by the villain himself), which nobody ever thinks to mention when the issue of payment is discussed for taking him out. Last but not least, the guy is some crime boss who has to steal from local towns to keep his people fed — how he could plausibly raise a whole army is beyond me.

Compare that to The Magnificent Seven (2016), in which our villain is a gold mining robber baron. Bart Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) is a cold-hearted and greedy bastard with massive resources at his disposal, with every last lawman either bought and paid for or scared shitless. Or both. Bogue is a cartoonishly slimy and evil bastard (seriously, even Eli Wallach’s character might think this guy was overdoing it), but at least his motivations and methods are easier to understand. Moreover, it’s not like Bogue is actively going into town and killing everyone, except when he feels like he has to defend his business. It’s more like Bogue’s mines are blasting away at all hours, causing all sorts of noise, dust clouds, and water pollution. It’s a far more sensible interpretation of the original premise, and the notion of a whole town suffering from water pollution is *ahem* especially timely right now.

Then we have Emma Cullen, played by Haley Bennett. She’s a local who became a widow after Bogue shot her husband (played by Matt Bomer, who’s literally killed and out of the film for good even before his name appears in the opening credits). So it’s Emma who takes it upon herself to go out and hire some gunmen — alongside Teddy, played by Luke Grimes — in place of the three farmers of the original film.

Emma has a more compelling backstory than her counterparts in the original film. Moreover, it’s refreshing to see our female lead front and center instead of a tacked-on contrivance like in the original film. It also changes the team dynamic considerably, having a gorgeous and technically single young woman surrounded by seven cowboys, and nobody dares entertain any serious notion of striking up a romance. Last but not least, a woman in a misogynistic setting who’s determined and able to step up and fight fits beautifully with the central premise about a motley team of misfits that everybody underestimates.

Alas, Emma is a character who works better in theory than in execution. She’s proven to be capable with a firearm, which kinda goes against the basic plot point that nobody in this town knows how to fight. It’s also all well and good to have a strong female character in a shootout, until she’s entirely and needlessly incapable of defending herself at a crucial moment and needs one of the male leads to come save her. Last but not least, Bennett is hopelessly out of her league. I’m sorry, but she simply didn’t have the screen presence that the character needed, and she could never have possibly held her own against so many heavyweights in this cast.

Which brings me to the Seven themselves. The original crew was undeniably a colorful bunch, each with his own backstory, personality quirks, skill set, and so on. That said, they were all little more than hired guns when you get right down to it. To wit: I still can’t believe that the original film put so much effort into establishing James Coburn’s character as this badass knife-thrower, and then he never throws a knife again until his goddamn death scene.

By comparison, the remake’s Seven are all different in ways that are far more pronounced. They’re all expert gunmen, but one prefers a bow and arrow, one of them is good with a tomahawk, the knife-thrower actually uses his goddamn knives, and one of them cleverly uses misdirection and guile to trick the opponent. And lest we forget, they’re up against a mining company — that means an unlimited supply of explosives ripe for the taking and using against the enemy. Together with some badass stuntwork and dazzling visuals, and all of this makes for some action sequences that are nothing short of epic.

What’s more, while the original Seven were pretty much entirely white guys of varying age, they’re much more racially diverse in the remake. The obvious example is Chisholm (Denzel Washington), the black de facto leader of the crew. But then we also have a Mexican nutjob (Vasquez, played by Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a Native American outcast (Red Harvest, played by Martin Sensmeier of the Alaskan Tlingit tribe), and even a stone-cold Asian badass (Billy Rocks, played by Byung-Hun Lee).

It’s interesting to note that the “minority” actors in this cast are made to look more imposing precisely because they’re in a time and place so bigoted against them. For example, Chisholm walks into a bar and everybody has their eyes on him. It’s hard to tell if people don’t want him there because he’s black or because he’s so dangerous, but it’s clear that Chisholm himself couldn’t give less of a shit either way. It’s badass in a way that I couldn’t possibly describe here, because… well, I’m not Denzel Washington. And nobody could make it work the way he does.

So, not counting their female employer, that leaves three white men to round out the ranks. Faraday is a sleight-of-hand artist and a trickster with the gift of talking himself out of any predicament, and Chris Pratt makes it work because he’s Star Lord. Jack Horne is a gentle giant, easily one of the most intelligent and well-read of the bunch while also being one of the most dangerous when provoked. And of course Vincent D’Onofrio makes it work because he’s Wilson Fisk. Last but not least is Billy Rocks’ partner in crime, a renowned Civil War veteran named “Goodnight” Robicheaux. And Ethan Hawke makes it work because… well, he’s Ethan Hawke, what more can I say?

It should be obvious at this point that the Seven in this film are very different from the Seven of the original, but there are a few places of overlap. For example, while they are very different characters, Chisholm is still very much the leader of the group in the same way that Yul Brenner’s character was the leader of the original group. Additionally, Faraday is still the resident joker and unofficial first mate of the team, not unlike Steve McQueen’s old character. Billy Rocks the knife-thrower is an obvious counterpart to James Coburn’s old character. Robicheaux is sort of an amalgam, combining the post-legendary PTSD of Robert Vaughn’s character with the self-serving moral flexibility of Brad Dexter’s part.

The overlap is especially obvious in the rare few scenes that are directly copied from the original film. More than that, some of the original movie’s most notable lines are carried over practically verbatim. My own personal favorite — the anecdote about a man falling from a tall building — even got promoted to the status of a running gag.

But then we have the quotable lines that DIDN’T get adapted. And that’s really where I have problems with this remake.

A prominent example came from Yul Brenner’s old character: To paraphrase, he said the kind of contracts that no court would enforce are exactly the kind of contracts you have to keep. The original film put a heavy emphasis on honor, and the remake really doesn’t. Considering that both films stem from a story about samurai, that’s kind of a big problem for the remake.

What’s more, there’s no analogue of any kind for the Horst Buchholz role. The Mexican children surrounding the old Charles Bronson character are likewise wholly absent. There’s no voice of youthful naivete in this picture. No one who has to be dissuaded from their dreams of going down in a blaze of glory. And that’s a huge, HUGE fucking problem.

The original movie had this fantastic exchange about how those who live by the gun have nothing except for their gun. They have no friends, no loved ones, and no future, even if that also means they have no one to tie them down and nobody to take any crap from. What’s more, Charles Bronson had a wonderful speech about how brave the farmers are because of how much responsibility they take on in raising a family and nurturing what they have.

The original film ends with Brenner stating outright that only the farmers won, and everyone on all sides — including and especially the Seven — took heavy losses. Compare that to this film, which ends on a note that glorifies the Seven and what they did for the town. That’s why the original film is a classic and the remake isn’t: The title is ironic. The original film understood that and the remake didn’t.

Time and again, the original film hammers home the point that war is a game in which there are no winners. We’re explicitly told in one exchange after another that knowing how to shoot a gun doesn’t make the Seven better than anybody else, and knowing nothing except how to shoot a gun actually makes them lesser than everybody else.

The original film made a very clear point of praising the farmers for their ability to grow things and build things and love one another. Yes, the farmers learn how to fight; but it’s far more important that the farmers learn when to fight, why they should fight when the time comes, and what it means to fight. For all their thin characterizations and racially insensitive portrayals in the original film, it’s the farmers who are the real heroes of this story because they’re the ones who develop into masters of both worlds.

Absolutely none of this is in the remake. Sure, there’s a bit of “war is hell” imagery to make the implicit point in a visual manner, but it’s nothing on par with the insights of the original film. There are a few exchanges between the Seven, but it goes pretty much entirely toward developing the characters with very little time spent on the deeper ideas. And while we do see the farmers train extensively for the oncoming battle, none of them (save only for the vengeance-driven Emma) remotely resemble actual characters.

In the remake, it’s perfectly clear that the Seven were always meant to be the heroes. Sorry, Mr. Fuqua, but you missed the point entirely.

One last note should be given to the late, great James Horner, who put in a month of work on this movie’s score before he died. His swan song was completed by Simon Franglen, an old friend of Horner who had collaborated with him on Titanic and Avatar. The score makes for some outstanding tension during the standoff scenes, but it’s otherwise unremarkable. The iconic Elmer Bernstein theme is wholly absent aside from a brief quotation in the closing moments, and of course the theme is played in all its glory over the end credits.

The Magnificent Seven (2016) is one of those frustrating films that’s merely good when it could so easily have been great. The cast is outstanding across the board, even if Haley Bennett is the obvious weak link. It looks amazing, the action scenes are jaw-dropping, and the comical moments are well delivered. The previous film is referenced in effective ways, and it was so refreshing to see the original premise utilized in a way that’s far more timely and logical, with far less of the uncomfortable ’60s racial optics. If only the film had been so clever and compelling in its anti-war statements, or understood why the anti-war statements of the original film were delivered in ways that still hold up so well. It’s a film with all the thrills and star power of the original film, but none of the brains or heart.

It’s a remake that more than justifies its own existence, and it definitely qualifies as an enjoyable time more than worth its ticket price, but it’s not a classic by a long shot.

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