Let’s get this out of the way first: Denzel Washington makes riding a horse look mighty fine.
No, there was no need for this remake of a remake, a new version of the 1960 Western that was itself a spin on the 1954 Akira Kurosawa classic Seven Samurai. And perhaps the talents of all involved with Antoine Fuqua’s 2016 update of The Magnificent Seven would’ve been better put to use in a wholly original idea that didn’t conjure up nostalgia-tinged memories of superior movies.
But, still—Denzel. On a horse. Slinging guns in the desert, fighting a greedy, bloodthirsty industrialist alongside his ragtag band of brothers. It’s an archetype we haven’t seen from one of our greatest movie stars before and a welcome one at that; even if he’s still treading dangerously close to regrettable Liam Neeson territory as an elder action hero and seeker of justice, he owns the performance.
There are other reasons The Magnificent Seven, as derivative as it may be, makes for a decent couple of hours wasted. It opens a few years after the Civil War with the aforementioned industrialist Bartholomew Bogue and his dastardly band of armed cronies striding into the town of Rose Creek, crashing a church sermon. Bogue, played with Snidely Whiplash ham by a gleeful Peter Sarsgaard, threatens the town, kills a few parishioners, and sets fire to the church. He’ll return in a few weeks with a full-on militia, he warns, and take what’s rightfully his.
Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) is determined not to let Rose Creek fall into Bogue’s hands without a fight. When Sam Chisholm (Washington, sporting remarkable facial hair in apparent homage to an earlier cinematic black cowboy, Fred Williamson) comes to town to collect on a bounty, she swoops in and convinces him to help her town fight off Bogue—who, it turns out, is also a longtime enemy of Chisholm’s.
After this sluggish opener, The Magnificent Seven gains momentum as Chisholm gets the band together. As gambler Josh Farraday, Chris Pratt cracks wise and oozes overconfidence, which is to say he does what he does best. Ethan Hawke plays Goodnight Robicheaux, an ex-Confederate soldier and acquaintance of Chisholm’s suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Byung-hun Lee plays Robicheaux’s companion and expert knife-wielder Billy Rocks. Other roles are filled out by Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, and an unfocused Vincent D’Onofrio.
The breezy banter and tangled relationships between this assortment of characters is amusing, as when Robicheaux and Garcia-Rulfo’s “Texican” outlaw Vasquez drunkenly debate the possibility that their grandfathers fought one another at the Alamo, or when Chisholm takes a bite of raw deer heart offered as a sign of peace. (Chisholm’s grossed-out expression is a nice reminder that super-thespian Denzel Washington is also a funny guy.)
While the media has made much of the fact that the cast is unusually diverse for a Hollywood movie, Fuqua and Co. don’t make much of it themselves. For the most part, The Magnificent Seven treats the existence of nonwhite bodies in the Wild West as a totally natural occurrence. (And it was, as Fuqua has noted: “The west was a mixed bag of people coming from everywhere. … it was more diverse than what we see in westerns.”)
Where The Magnificent Seven isn’t so forward-thinking is in its gender relations: In the film’s final act, screenwriters Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk miss a golden opportunity to give Emma a chance to shine in the fantastically choreographed showdown, and instead deliver an eye-roll–worthy damsel-in-distress moment. Where have you gone, Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane?
While Fuqua and most of his cast have mostly steered clear of talking much about the film’s “racial progression,” Hawke has stressed that The Magnificent Seven, with its rapacious industrialist and inclusive cast, joins an ever-growing list of present-day art intended to be read as a direct response to our Trump-ified present. That’s all well and good, but it’s a bit absurd—with its protracted shoot-’em-up scenes and semi-silly deaths, Magnificent Seven has one and only true goal: It’s a new Hollywood crack at good, old-timey entertainment. Fuqua takes every chance he can to linger on his heroes as they saunter toward the camera and hit their marks, guns (or knives, or arrows) cocked and ready to fire. It may not make a solid case for more remakes of the same old movies, but it does make the case that more present-day movie stars embrace the glories of old Hollywood.