Wednesday, January 18, 2017

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016) When is a remake not a remake?

Well they did it, didn't they?  They finally did it.  The Hollywood Remake machine has finally claimed another American classic.  Never in my wildest dreams would I have believed they would have the tenacity to attempt to redo a nearly perfect classic film.  How much more taboo can you be?  The film that I am talking about of course is WORLD GONE WILD.  The post apocalyptic action western starring Bruce Dern is about a hippie from the sixties living in a world ravaged by nuclear warfare.  He lives in a small settlement of peaceful pioneers in the desert who find themselves under threat of Adam Ant and his cult of followers.  Out gunned Bruce Dern goes out and recruits about five other tough guys who manage to fight back and save the town from the weirdo attackers.  Of course the most memorable moment in the film is when Bruce Dern kills a bad guy by flipping a hub cap into his throat with the flick of a stick.  Oscar worthy and totally possible in real life I am sure.

Of course I am being silly.  Yes, WORLD GONE WILD is a remake (or homage) of the classic western, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, which was a remake of the classic samurai film, THE SEVEN SAMURAI, directed by Akira Kurosawa.  But we are here to review the new Denzel Washington film directed by Antoine Fuqua.  I bring up WORLD GONE WILD to make a point.  WGW has the spirit of the original as well as some lines of dialogue and some visual cues as well.  THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN 2016 only has a few lines of dialogue from the original.  The spirit of the original is completely absent from the new film.  The new MAGNIFICENT SEVEN barely even qualifies as a remake.  I would argue that it is not a remake at all, but just another "Men on a Mission" movie.  However, the idea that this is not a remake does not make the new movie better.  There is no fresh or new approach to the material.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN from 2016 is about a gunfighter named Sam (Not Chris!) who accepts a request from a recently widowed woman to help save her town from an evil rich guy and his army of bearded, duster wearing, professional gunmen.  Of course along the way Sam (The Denzel) recruits Chris Pratt and five other cohorts to lead the revolt against the army of TOMBSTONE movie enthusiasts.

I was shocked to see according to IMDB that the new MAGNIFICENT SEVEN was two hours and thirteen minutes long.  That is five minutes longer than the 1960's version!  How can the longer film have less story?  The new movie has gutted the story and replaced it all with guns, guns and more guns.  The movie becomes more of a standard revenge Western than an epic tale of men of questionable character deciding to fight for a noble cause with little chance of winning.  Yes, that is right I said "revenge Western."  Spoiler!!!!  At the end it is revealed that the rich bad guy, Bartholomew, had murdered Sam's family.  That revelation undercuts the whole point to the story.  The story narrative is incredibly important.  The filmmakers didn't trust the audiences to understand a motivation that wasn't revenge or getting gold and stuff.  The concept of fighting because it is the right thing to do seems to be too much of an abstract concept nowadays.  When Sam says the line from the original "I have been offered a lot, but never everything" it now suddenly has no meaning because he is only joining the cause for revenge.  Contrast that with Yul Brynner's character, Chris, who is moved by the gesture of poor farmers scraping together everything they have just to hire him to fight.  Which movie has more depth of character?  Which movie is going to move you more on an emotional level?

Akira Kurosawa's film was called THE SEVEN SAMURAI.  It is about seven samurai.  The 1960's MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is about seven gunfighters.  The new movie's cast of characters have different occupations.  You have Sam and the Mexican as gunfighters, a knife expert, a former Confederate who is now a sharp shooter, a Native American who joins for no reason, a mountain man and a gambler.  The diversity of their occupations doesn't hurt the modern film because there is no attempt to bring a connection between our protagonists and our super rich and super mean antagonist.  There is no time for character development despite the longer run time.  Longer run time means longer gun fights at the end.  1960's MAGNIFICENT had a cast of nothing but wandering gunfighters just like the wandering samurai from the source material.  These seven gunfighters are fighting a large band of outlaws who are also gunfighters.  They have similar job occupations.  Eli Wallachi leads the gang of outlaws who steals from the poor defenseless farmers.  Near the end he out smarts the heroes and takes over the small village but he doesn't kill them.  He respects them.  He sees himself as one of them even though he doesn't understand why they are fighting for some pathetic farmers.  The new movie has a stereotypical wealthy bad guy.  Only at the end is there an attempt to establish any connection our heroes and villain and it is only the deflating revelation that the bad guy killed Sam's family back in the day.  Standard stuff you would find in any Western.  That is why I really don't consider this a remake.  It is too far gone from the source material.  It is in name only that this is a remake.

Location.  Location.  Location.  The location is so important to both versions of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.  For the original it helps emphasize the thoughtful nature of our heroes.  They choose to fight the odds in a foreign land far away from anyone who will ever know their sacrifice.  There is no reward for what they are doing.  No one will remember them except for the farmers and villagers they help save.  They are alien to the Mexican culture.  Through the course of the film, however, the gunfighters envy the farmers for having a life worth living full of family and friends.  The farmers and the gunfighters learn from each other and develop a kinship.  Also the village is in the middle of nowhere far from any form of law enforcement which is ideal for Calvera and his men to take as they please.  The villagers are so desperate to hire men that are good with guns that they scrounge all of their most valuable possessions together making themselves even more poor than they were before.

The location of the remake takes place in the United States.  The townsfolk are not poor when compared to the farmers of the original.  The townsfolk gathering up their possessions to pay for their own Magnificent Seven isn't as meaningful.  They probably have more wealth where that came from.  Just look at how prosperous their town looks.   These people have jobs.  It feels disingenuous.  Being in the United States means there is some kind of government law somewhere about.  I know the film gives the classic cliche that the evil rich guy owns the law but if you are going to seek help from an army of bad guys, you don't buy gunfighters.  You go to a nearby fort and find the United States Army and ask them to help for free.  Does the bad guy own the Army too?  Not bloody likely.  Maybe there is some kind of HEAVEN'S GATE situation going on the movie doesn't mention.

Calvera played by Eli Wallachi is bombastic, deadly and a true threat.  He is a bandit, a killer, a man who has lived the life of adventure.  He lives outside of the law just like our heroes.  Contrast that to Bartholomew Bogue the wealthy murdering businessman.  Peter Sarsgaard is a great actor and he does his job well playing the antagonist but his diminutive size and stature does not present much of a menace to our stalwart band of larger than life heroes.  Being a man raised in great privilege makes him look soft having armed guards do his dirty work.

So what are we left with?  A descent action western and not much else.  Its not great but it is entertaining for the most part.  All the actors are great in their respected roles.  Denzel is always good.  You can never accuse the guy of giving a bad performance.  Chris Pratt is pretty much an early relative of STARLORD but that is a good thing for this film.  The Seven do have some good chemistry between them all that musters some attachment from the audience.  I like Byung-hun Lee as Billy Rocks the knife expert and his partner Goodnight Robicheaux the sharpshooter.  These two have an fun and sympathetic friendship where Billy keeps Goodnight in check from completely falling apart from his past experience in the Civil War.  If they had survived the movie they should have had a spin-off movie exploiting their further adventures.  Oops!  Spoilers!  Antoine Fuqua is a really good action director and he brings his "A Game" for this one.  There is a ton of glorious six gun blasting action in this movie and it's well staged and easy to follow.  No busy editing to distract form the action.  I particularly like all the horse stunt work Denzel does shooting bad guys from atop his magnificent black steed.  He is like a gymnast on a pommel horse.  Don't worry, folks.  The horse survives.  With all the shootings, stabbings and other major impalement issues I am surprised that this film managed to squeak out a PG-13.

Its funny.  Antoine Fuqua made another actioner that came out back in the old days of 2003.  It was TEARS OF THE SUN.  It starred Bruce Willis as a Special-Ops commander who leads a small group of soldiers who are sent into Africa to retrieve a doctor played by Monica Bellucci but find themselves ignoring orders to save a bunch of refugees fleeing a murderous army that seeks to kill them all.  Its an okay movie.  Tom Skerritt pops up in the film as an added bonus.  TEARS is way more closer to a MAGNIFICENT SEVEN remake than the Denzel movie.  Men in a foreign land who fight against a much larger army to save some people they have no apparent commonality with.  Sure it doesn't take place in the same time period and it lacks the memorable dialogue of the original but it does have the same core concept of few against many for the lives of strangers and the greater good.  See it for yourself.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN has more in common with any generic action movie (WORLD GONE WILD) concerning men recruited to undertake a dangerous mission than it does with the classic Western the movie steals it's title from.  Still the new movie is enjoyable with it's colorful cast and impressive amount of shoot'em up fun.  It is just too bad they didn't approach the material as an epic rather than just another BANG-BANG action movie.


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