The Magnificent Seven review: Denzel steals the show in unremarkable remake

This time a more racially diverse seven ride out, and the film does hint at contemporary political concerns, but in the end, it all adds up to not much

The Magnificent Seven
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Director: Antoine Fuqua
Cert: 12A
Genre: Western
Starring: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Peter Sarsgaard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier
Running Time: 2 hrs 13 mins

It says something about Antoine Fuqua’s adequate remake of The Magnificent Seven that its best bit is the arrival of Elmer Bernstein’s original theme over the closing credits. There have, to that point, been sly hints – the odd “dum, dum, dee, dum” – scattered throughout James Horner and Simon Franglen’s adequate score, but the full surge doesn’t arrive until the killing is done.

Maybe Fuqua just felt remaking The Magnificent Seven without that riff would be like remaking Titanic without the boat. Perhaps he guessed this was a way of sending punters out in a state of pounding excitement. It works. It takes a few minutes to calm down and realise you’ve watched a film whose reviews will make promiscuous use of the word “adequate”.

From the first moments of commercial cinema up until the mid-1960s, Hollywood has been recalibrating the western to chime with contemporaneous mores. In the 1950s, you got the McCarthyite western. In the 1960s, you got the Vietnam western (maybe it was the exhausting Soldier Blue that killed the genre off). Released in 1960, John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven – a virtual remake of The Seven Samurai – wasn’t a political film, but it did trade in the sort of wise-cracking heroism that became a currency in the post-war years.

Fuqua’s movie digs its spurs into 2016 by having something and nothing to do with race. The something is the inclusion of a black man (Denzel Washington), a Mexican (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a Comanche (Martin Sensmeier) and an Asian (Byung-hun Lee) among the mighty seven. The nothing is the relative lack of bigotry that greets the party as they move through America of the Reconstruction.


Some reviews have felt this unrealistic. The authors of those reviews must have forgotten they were watching a western. As any cursory glance at the records will confirm, the traditions of the western film are no more plausible or accurate than the traditions of the non-diagetic musical. If you can believe that a handgun is accurate beyond the length of a bed then you can believe that a black man would be greeted with only modest hostility by 19th century white homesteaders. (One distracting result of casting an African-American as the protector of such people is the unavoidable reminders of Blazing Saddles. What can you do?)

Co-written by Nic Pizzolatto, who created True Detective, the adequate script doesn’t pull many other innovative shapes. We begin with the local townspeople shuddering when an apparently deranged mine owner (Peter Sarsgaard, making no concessions to restraint) bursts into the church and declares that he is taking over the town.

Modest resistance leads to mass shootings and the immolation of their place of worship. Somehow or other, Sam Chisholm (Washington), a bounty hunter, gets persuaded to gather a team to defend the honest folk from the violent hoodlums.

The film promises a political undercurrent in the opening scene when Sarsgaard, in full Trumpian fury, notes that “this country” has always accepted an equivalence between “democracy and capitalism”. That’s probably true enough, but it’s only peripherally relevant to the conversation and it doesn’t have much to do with the subsequent action (neither side flirts conspicuously with democracy).

The Magnificent Seven moves on to offer adequate action interspersed with adequate dialogue from adequate actors. No, that’s not quite fair. Ethan Hawke is first rate as a former confederate officer who is now fighting with unmanageable demons. Chris Pratt is charming as a drunken rogue. What the film lacks, when set beside its predecessor, is not actors, but movie stars. It misses men like Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner who merely needed to be themselves to have the screen come alive.

This Magnificent Seven has one such star, of course. Without Washington the picture would wither into dust. With him on board it proves, well, perfectly adequate.

The Adequate Seven.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist