If social media has taught us anything, it’s that hell hath no fury like the rage typed in reaction to a movie remake announcement. Apparently nothing shakes us to our core more than a new spin on something we know and love, despite it having no impact on the existence or the brilliance of the original.
When you crave something that avoids nostalgia, in can be tedious to get a repeat of what’s been done before. Between adaptations from page-to-screen and reboots, it’s infinitely more difficult than it used to be to score a new-story production deal with a large studio. Most of that boils down to the financial bottom line. In the rapidly changing climate of how we consume film and television - sometimes without paying for it - it makes sense that studios take the lower risk in making films about characters they know we already enjoy. There’s a bizarre amount of anger circling around Disney and Jon Favreau’s live-action remake of The Lion King, regardless of the fact that giving The Jungle Book the same treatment was a roaring success. Existing properties are extremely bankable.
There is, however, a case to be made for the remake when it updates the politics and the representation of the past. Films tell us as much about the technology, the aesthetics and the mindset of the year they were produced as they do the content. Especially when that story places itself at a particular point in history. How we understand social history changes as society evolves, too.
The irony with The Magnificent Seven is that the lauded 1960 version starring Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen was in itself an Americanised remake of the 1954 Japanese film Seven Samurai. Still, while this may be a fictional story placed on America’s 19th Century Western frontier, another watch of Hollywood’s Sixties ode to the renegade cowboy throws up attitudes that definitely place it 56 years in the past. Antoine Fuqua’s third attempt at the story, starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt, updates The Magnificent Seven for the 2016 mentality without disrespecting what came before it. If you know where to look, there are plenty of winks and nods there to be seen.
Denzel Washington plays Sam Chisolm, a bounty hunter whose work happens to take him to the small, dusty town of Rose Creek. While there he’s hired by Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), a young widow at the hands of wealthy bullies headed by the merciless egomaniac Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). The town is pressed under Bogue’s thumb, officials are paid off in return for blind eyes and nobody knows where to turn until Emma persuades Chisolm they’re a challenge worth taking on. Each resident pools everything they have to pay for his help. With a few previous acquaintances under his belt, Chisolm sets about gathering a crew of six more men with particular fighting skills they’ll need if they have any chance of defeating Bogue’s well-stocked army of bruisers. The locals, too, have to learn how to handle a gun.
In 1960, the pillaged town, the villain of the piece and those in need of assistance were Mexican. The heroes were white Americans who swooped in to save their less equipped neighbours. In this new version, Fuqua avoids the awkward suggestion that Mexicans need Americans to rescue them by containing the story within the US, albeit on what were blurry geographical border lines at the time. Given the ugly, rising face of current right-wing American politics, making the setting and Bogue’s arrogance a homegrown problem is one of the wisest shifts forward. In fact, here the main Mexican influence comes from Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), the outlaw who makes up one-seventh of the Magnificent.
The rest of the group are also significantly more diverse in ethnicity and physicality than they appeared in the Sixties. Chris Pratt steps easily into Steve McQueen’s classically handsome and quietly comedic shoes, but Denzel Washington entirely updates the historical narrative previously seen on film. In 1879, 14 years after the abolition of slavery, there absolutely were Black cowboys roaming the West. Knife-throwing expert Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee) ensures we know that Asians populated the area during this period, too. Almost obnoxiously ignored or vilified in Westerns of the past, Martin Sensmeier plays Red Harvest - the Comanche warrior who Chisolm befriends by speaking with him in his own language. As Civil War PTSD victim Goodnight Robicheaux, Ethan Hawke’s well-worn weariness pulls the psychological thread forward from the original. While the presence of Vincent D’Onofrio’s chunky, gently-spoken tracker turns the Hollywood cowboy cliché on its head.
Antoine Fuqua says that his intention was not so much to fill a diversity in acting quota as to give a more accurate depiction of who actually built the country during that boom era. The cumulative affect being that it rebalances representation for Americans in the 21st Century. It occasionally feels odd that ethnicity is rarely mentioned, though that’s entirely the point. The same also applies to how women show up in The Magnificent Seven. ‘Exotic love interest’ is the only role given to a woman in 1960, but Emma Cullen is nobody’s bit of fluff. She’s not only their client, but she travels with Chisolm and has every hope of fighting alongside him. Haley Bennett may be outnumbered by her male counterparts, but her presence is vital to how the story begins, develops and ends.
At its core, this new incarnation of The Magnificent Seven is an action film in a Western setting. It has all the pace of the Hollywood blockbuster it needs to be. There’s nothing especially gritty about it, but that’s not its M.O. It hasn’t set out to impress any aloof awarding bodies, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining. ‘Easy to watch’ should never be a criticism. The film has moments of comedy and genuine tenderness, but we always feel that we’re heading toward an explosive climax of gunpowder and lead. Thanks to updated technology, the shoot-outs that bring the story to a close are inevitably more impressive than we’ve seen before, and there’s a pleasing neatness to how it comes to an end, before that iconic theme tune blusters in.
The original version of The Magnificent Seven will forever hold its place in cinematic history, and probably in a way that this one won’t. Though, the landscape of film even just as a business model is unrecognisable to how it was 50 years ago, so it’s almost unfair to compare. With hindsight, the 1960s version tells us more about 1960 than it does the 1870s. Should someone decide to have a crack at it in another five decades, Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Haley Bennett and Co’s performances will be a snapshot of 2016. Remakes do offer the comfort of something we’ve at least heard about before, but for an action movie built to stack big money, this film offers an improvement on what we know about the past. It’s more important than it looks at first or even second glance.
The Magnificent Seven is showing in cinemas nationwide now.