Wednesday 22 November 2017

Guns for hire shine Seven’ in fine remake

Good casting makes Antoine Fuqua’s western reboot very watchable, says Paul Whitington
The Magnificent Seven (12A, 133mins)
Rating: 3/5

Gunslingers: The cast of ‘The Magnificent Seven’
Gunslingers: The cast of ‘The Magnificent Seven’

Critics enjoy getting upset about remakes of sacred cows, but in the case of Antoine Fuqua’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ that hardly seems appropriate. When I was a kid, Preston Sturges’ 1960 original was on TV every other week: a kind of buddy western, it starred Yul Brynner as the leader of a band of cuddly gunfighters who come to the aid a Mexican village. It was fun, but hardly a classic, and you could remake it 10 times so far as I’m concerned.

In any case the Sturges ‘Magnificent Seven’ was itself a remake, of Akira Kurosawa’s infinitely superior ‘Seven Samurai’, and no one I hope will be rehashing that timeless masterpiece any time soon.

Mr. Fuqua and his writers, in fairness, have at least justified their endeavour by giving the original formula a bit of a shake up. The new band of outlaws are far more ethnically diverse than their whiter-than-white celluloid ancestors, and are led by an African-American, though everyone seems too afraid of Sam Chisolm to actually point that out. Denzel Washington is Chisolm, a rather fastidious bounty hunter who’s just assassinated his latest mark when he’s approached by a pretty farm girl called Emma.

She (Haley Bennett) proceeds to unleash a right old tale of woe: her town of Rose Creek has been mercilessly bullied by a rapacious industrialist called Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who’s discovered gold in the nearby hills and is buying out everyone’s homesteads for an insultingly low fee and killing those who refuse to play along. At their wits’ end, the townsfolk need protection, and Emma begs Sam to come to their aid. She offers money but Chisolm is interested anyway, and seems to have heard of Bogue. To combat Bogue’s legion of hired killers, Sam will need a tiny army of his own, so on his way to Rose Creek he picks up an assortment of heavily armed strays who should prove handy in a fight. Josh Farraday (Chris Pratt) is an inveterate gambler who’s alarmingly quick on the draw, Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) is a legendary Civil War marksman, and Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio) is a frontier tracker with a fearsome reputation for Indian killing.

That last fact proves problematic when a Comanche warrior called Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) joins Sam Chisolm’s band, along with a Mexican outlaw called Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), a Korean assassin. Somehow, this ill-assorted bunch of killers must find a way of getting along, because once they reach Rose Creek they begin to realise the gravity of the challenge they face.

‘The Magnificent Seven’ builds slowly — at times too slowly — towards the kind of baroque explosion of violence its director, Antoine Fuqua, tends to favour. But his film has a number of things going for it, most particularly some very decent actors. Ethan Hawke has worked with Mr Fuqua and Denzel Washington before on the gruesome but memorable 2001 crime thriller ‘Training Day’, and gives a nuanced and colourful turn here as a man deeply traumatised by wartime killing.

Chris Pratt’s role seemed to be based on the one Steve McQueen played in the 1960 film, but Pratt has a sense of humour as well as poise, and provides welcome moments of comic relief.

Vincent D’Onofrio’s grizzled mountain man speaks in a gruff falsetto and mutters constantly to himself: it’s either a brilliant performance or a terrible one — I still can’t quite decide which.

Denzel Washington, as we’ve come to expect from this masterful and unfussy screen actor, carries the entire film by sheer force of personality.

He says little, and does less, for at least the first 100 minutes of this two-hour-plus epic, but grounds the drama through his quiet characterisation as the tension slowly mounts. Peter Sarsgaard is wonderfully odious as the villainous Bogue, and I’d like to have seen a bit more of him, but Antoine Fuqua elaborately sets the scene for a memorable confrontation between he and Sam Chisolm.

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