Friday 24 February 2017

On DVD: "The Magnificent Seven"

This week’s remake/rehash/reboot goes big. John Sturges’ 1960 version of The Magnificent Seven was already a sturdy proposition, a roadshow Western that streamlined Kurosawa while still coming in at 128 minutes, the better to provide elbow room for its jostling ensemble. Action specialist Antoine Fuqua’s almost wholly inessential retelling runs to 142 minutes, and offers the now-standard game of gains and losses: nothing’s been improved upon exactly, but some of it still works. The trouble is just that there’s that much more of it.

That original – in as much as one might call it that – was another turn-of-the-Sixties item to suggest a rhyme between the Western and musical genres, in that its narrative depended on a crew being assembled so as to put on a show (or stand). One crucial loss here is Elmer Bernstein’s rousing theme, relegated to the end credits in favour of rote James Horner compositions that the KLF wouldn’t in a million years consider sampling. Gunfire provides Fuqua’s preferred music; gunfighters his players, recruited over the course of a talky first half.

As with The Hateful Eight, these names will surely form the basis of some future pub quiz round, so pay attention. Lining up to drive back sickly industrialist Peter Sarsgaard are black-clad bounty hunter Denzel Washington, good-time boy Chris Pratt, self-doubting Army man Ethan Hawke, burbling trapper Vincent d’Onofrio, plus a Comanche Indian (Martin Sensmeier), Asiatic knife thrower (Byung-hun Lee) and Spanish speaker (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), presumably here because it’s 2016, and Sony have overseas markets to consider.

The underlying movement remains the same, and not unstirring: these lone gunmen, self-exiled to the vastness of the Old West, slowly coincide around a small village on the fringes of civilisation, and find renewed purpose in putting down a marker for the values Americans will and will not stand for. Yet while the 2016 version contrives to be political in certain respects, it’s utterly apolitical in others. Yes, this is a more diverse Seven – but only up to a point.

Fuqua is certainly less agitated around the idea of a black cowboy lead than was that try-hard Tarantino in Django Unchained: the character suffers no overt racism, and even when he finds himself on the wrong end of a sheriff’s weapon – which might have been teased into a Big Moment for audiences aware of numerous incidents involving African-Americans and latter-day lawmen – any threat is quickly shrugged off with the now-anticipated Denzel cool.

Yet this early moment proves typical of a Seven that feels like a bigger show – working with a budget beyond Sturges’s wildest imagination, Fuqua’s noisily incoherent 40-minute showdown makes Heaven’s Gate look self-contained – even while less of it seems to matter. Emerging in the wake of Hell or High Water, an altogether sincere engagement with classical Western themes, this Seven never shakes off an air of pastiche, apparently conceived just so everybody could play cowboy.

It is, however, a boys’ only game, when the sun sets. Given that Sony backed the all-girl Ghostbusters, one could easily imagine a remake that counted at least one woman in its central septet, but Fuqua’s working from a script by Nic Pizzolato (True Detective) and Richard Wenk (Vamp) which persists with ponderous man’s-gotta-do business. Between the campfire camaraderie and redemptive pistol-packing, Fuqua flirts with elevating Haley Bennett, the one female who gets anywhere near the poster, to the first team – before condemning her to last-reel damsel-in-distress duty.  

Elsewhere, nothing gets trashed or sabotaged too badly: Fuqua is too much the professional for that, and on reflection, perhaps it’s no great sacrilege to update a well-timbered Bank Holiday perennial as a brain-in-neutral Saturday night runaround. Yet I’m not so sure this version, simultaneously over-inflated and throwaway, knows its own values the way Sturges’s seemed to. Amid that indecision, a set-up that needed clever streamlining has only got stodgier – and, by that would-be stirring finale, a heck of a lot sillier.

The Magnificent Seven is now available on DVD through Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

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