Has any non-western creator influenced western storytelling as much as Akira Kurosawa? Maybe, but you’d have to go back a good dozen centuries to find them. Without The Hidden Fortress, there would be no Star Wars and pop culture as we know it today would be virtually unrecognizable. Without Yojimbo, there would be no Fistful Of Dollars and the Spaghetti western might not have developed the visual and storytelling aesthetic that set it apart from conventional westerns. And of course, without Seven Samurai, we would have had neither The Magnificent Seven nor its lesser known sequels, let alone the numerous spoofs and alternative riffs inspired by its basic premise. Throughout his career and well beyond his death, Kurosawa and western creators have entertained an exemplary relationship of inter-cultural artistic symbiosis: Each side influenced the other, transposing stories into a culture-specific environment all while keeping their basic principles and ideas intact.
Considering the richness of this legacy, a remake of The Magnificent Seven – and, by extension, of Seven Samurai – not only makes sense but feels almost overdue. With almost twenty years separating it from both its last direct iteration (a TV series loosely based on the film franchise) and its most recent comic twist (the much-loved cult classic Galaxy Quest), any new version of the tale was going to be made in a very different cultural landscape which it would have to take into account.
Given these changes, as well as the wide range of possibilities offered by the story’s premise, the decision to keep the 1960 film’s Old West setting seems therefore rather odd. In 1960, transposing a story deeply-embedded in Japanese culture to a genre whose codes and setting exemplified popular American storytelling made logical sense. But in a post-Vietnam world, where the western can only exist by deconstructing or otherwise ignoring the values and whitewashed vision of history projected by its Golden Age elders, a straight-up remake risks anachronism.
The solution to this problem proposed by screenwriters Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto is two-fold: Firstly, to evacuate the 1960 film’s uncomfortable “white saviour” subtext by diversifying the titular Seven and changing the story’s geographical setting. Gone are the helpless Mexican peasants terrorized by ruthless bandidos, replaced instead by a small farming community invaded by a greedy mining corporation. Following “duly sworn warrant officer” Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) and hard-drinking gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt) in their quest for justice are Confederate veteran Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), his knife-wielding East Asian sidekick Billy Rocks (Byung-Hun Lee), half-crazed tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), wanted Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). Standing in contrast to traditional western heroism’s pervasive whiteness, the Seven’s diversity colours their interpersonal relations as well as the political significance of their mission.
This is where the solution’s second part comes in and tragically, while it is the source of some of the film’s most entertaining scenes, it ultimately ends up causing its downfall. Having obviously noticed how well the superhero has supplanted the cowboy’s place in American mythology, Wenk and Pizzolatto have opted to base their screenplay’s structure and tone on The Avengers: Once the primary conflict between the villagers and the mining corporation is established, the crux of the film’s screen-time is spent introducing the Seven, developing their personalities and watching them bond as comrades across ethnic barriers before they face the bad guys.
On paper, taking cues from Joss Whedon seems logical enough. There is, after all, no modern writer who has pioneered the story of a ragtag bunch of unlikely heroes overcoming personal and cultural differences to save the day quite like him. But by uncritically copying his signature quippy dialogue, Wenk and Pizzolatto squander the opportunities opened up by their previous decisions; laying waste to all hope of serious inquiry on American mythmaking and how it may apply to modern-day identity politics, they choose to laugh away racial tension through wisecracking banter devoid of any insightful undercurrent. Faraday and Vasquez’s trade of Spanish insults and taunting yields no payoff, not even a modicum of complication in their macho camaraderie. Allusions to Jack Horne’s past as a bereaved veteran of Indian wars plant seeds of tension between him and Red Harvest that get quickly nipped in the bud once the latter casually reveals he speaks English. Easy humour replaces characterization instead of building it, and the story suffers for it.
These faults inadvertently expose a fundamental flaw in the screenwriters’ decision to focus on the Seven’s team-building rather than their relationship with the villagers: It ignores the core values that made the two original films so enduring. Both Seven Samurai and the original Magnificent Seven built their characters through their attitudes towards the people they were defending; in both cases, the inherent value of the peasants’ lives and livelihood eventually surpassed personal and mercenary motivations. No such transformation takes place here; reduced to folksy-accented extras with no discernible character – save for the recently-widowed Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) – and no significant interaction with any of the Seven, the villagers exist solely as humanoid plot catalysts. Even Sam Chisolm, who, as the Seven’s leader and nominal hero, requires no motive beyond belief in justice, is given a hackneyed backstory tying him to the main villain.
All these issues boil down to a clear lack of understanding for the western as a cinematic genre. Regardless of plot, period or country of origin, westerns are visually expressive in a way few other genres are; because the landscapes, sets, costumes, actions and faces all carry entire stories’ worth of information by their mere presence, storytelling on all fronts must be as economic as possible. And while Antoine Fuqua has proven himself in the past to be a capable director, his decidedly modern, action-heavy style is as poorly-suited to the genre as the writers’ ill-judged Whedonisms. Narrative turning points are overemphasized and telegraphed by expository dialogue, demonstrative close-ups and heavy-handed acting. Josh Faraday’s establishing character moment, which involves a magic trick and the brutal maiming of a man’s ear, is shot and paced in a way so devoted to making Chris Pratt look cool that it ends up sanitizing the character’s violence instead of owning up to it. The climactic gunfight, while well-staged, quickly devolves into repetitious explosions and shots of dying faceless goons that leave no emotional impact. Only a brief attack against a mine, shot in a continuous panning wide shot during which the camera pauses for every fatality, shows any spark of inventiveness.
Fortunately, the main cast possess enough charisma and chemistry to make most of these problems more tolerable to bear. Denzel Washington steps into his lone cowboy boots easily enough to make you wonder why he hasn’t been given the opportunity to do that sooner, and Peter Sarsgaard’s high-strung, baggy-eyed scenery-chewing elevates the main villain just above mediocrity. Kaboom’s Haley Bennett, however, is utterly wasted as a token action lady whose pseudo-feminist posturing (She talks the village into action! She can shoot as well as a man!) badly masks the film’s decidedly patriarchal values.
Amusing though the banter, performances and gunfights may be, they aren’t enough to make up for the continual miscommunication between ideas and style on display. Like a remixed cover of a classic song, this Magnificent Seven repackages familiar notes for millennial consumption without bothering to study the music. Akira Kurosawa and John Sturges deserve better, as does the audience.
Dir: Antoine Fuqua.
Scr: Richard Wenk, Nic Pizzolatto.
Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Byung-Hun Lee, Vincent D’Onofrio, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier
Prd: Bruce Berman, Antoine Fuqua, Walter Mirisch, Ben Waisbren, Roger Birnbaum, Todd Black, Kat Samick
DOP: Mauro Fiore
Editing: John Refoua
Music: James Horner, Simon Franglen
Running time: 133 min
The Magnificent Seven is in cinemas now