Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Seven take another ride

Denzel Washington leads a diverse troupe of rogues in a remake of The Magnificent Seven.
 The late John Huston, a director with a resume that commands respect, once confessed to bemusement about Hollywood's approach to remakes. Why remake movies that worked, Huston asked? Why not have another go at movies that didn't make the cut? Maybe a fresh eye could figure out what went wrong.

Director Antoine Fuqua didn't follow Huston's advice. Instead, he tried his luck at an emphatic but not entirely stirring version of The Magnificent Seven in which Denzel Washington, who teamed with Fuqua on Training Day, took the role Yule Brynner played in the 1960 original.

Fuqua brings plenty of style to the project, but the movie's magnificent seven -- rogues who sign on to help protect defenseless farmers from a ruthless robber baron (Peter Sarsgaard) -- tend to be sketches rather than well-drawn characters.

As a result, the movie is only moderately successful in its attempts to write a rousing ode to brutal men who find redemption by helping to protect the helpless.

This version of the Seven story has been ethnically diversified for contemporary audiences. In addition to Washington's Chisolm, we meet a knife-throwing Asian (Byung-hun Lee), a cigar-chomping Mexican (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), an outcast Comanche warrior (Martin Sensmeier), a former marksman (Ethan Hawke) for the Confederacy, a bearish loner (Vincent D'Onofrio) and a tag-along novice (Luke Grimes).

Washington, Hawke and D'Onofrio receive the most attention; the others are reduced to embodiments of their skill sets. Good with knives. Not-to-be-messed, etc.

Washington's performance consists mostly of stoic minimalism. Dressed in black, he's the all-business member of the team. Perhaps that's why it falls to D'Onofrio's Jack Horn to sound the movie's theme: No man can ask for more than to serve his fellows in the company of men he respects.

Early on, Fuqua seems to be embracing genre cliches with gleeful relish. He has some fun with the scenes in which Washington's character rounds up the crew that will protect the decent people of the embattled town of Rose Creek.

Initially reluctant to get involved, Washington's Chisolm eventually responds to a request from a plucky woman (Haley Bennett) whose husband was gunned down in cold blood by Sarsgaard's Bogue. Bogue's capitalistic interests clash with the homespun agrarian virtues of the townsfolk.

Oddly, the movie begins to lose steam with its first gunfight, and the massive final battle sacrifices realism to non-stop pyrotechnics, including a vicious hail of bullets launched from a Gatling Gun that Bogue brings to the fight.

Cliches aren't necessarily a bad thing in a movie such as this, but by the time Washington straddles his horse as he fires one impossibly precise shot after another, the cliches have become ... well .... cliches.

Mauro Fiore's cinematography provides one of the movie's biggest pleasures: spacious landscapes, weathered faces, galloping horses. Even the town of Rose Creek -- though typically portrayed -- adds a welcome familiarity to Fuqua's Western adventure.

And the villain? Eli Wallach's Calvera from the original was more convincing than Sarsgaard's blandly ruthless capitalist. The endangered Mexican peasant farmers of Sturges's movie, of course, have given way to Rose Creek's predominantly white-bread population.

Composer Elmer Bernstein's trademark theme from Sturges's movie, hinted at throughout, provides a stirring coda for a drama that could have used that kind of punctuation throughout.

The Magnificent Seven isn't a bad movie, but there's something wrong when a movie's end credits feel more spirited than the scenes that immediately precede it.

And, no, neither the 2016 edition nor Sturges's movie surpasses the real inspiration for both films, Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954), a true masterpiece.

No comments: