'The Magnificent Seven': Antoine Fuqua's fawning fan letter to Westerns

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Magnificent: (from left) Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Ethan Hawke, Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Vincent D'Onofrio, Martin Sensmeier.

I expected great things when Training Day director Antoine Fuqua announced that he was remaking The Magnificent Seven. When I heard that novelist and screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto (Galveston, HBO's True Detective) would work on the script, I think I even got goose bumps.

I'm sorely disappointed.

Don't get me wrong: Fuqua's reboot western is not in the same embarrassing league as last month's Ben Hur retread.

Featuring a guns-blazing turn from a cartload of A-list testosterone - Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio - Fuqua's restaging of John Sturges' 1960 classic is supremely competent, enjoyable, even gleefully fun.

Washington is brilliant as the leader of a ragtag gang of gunslingers who help the residents of a tiny town resist the machinations of a robber baron (a wonderfully sneering Peter Sarsgaard) who is forcing them off their land.

In a playful stab at revisionist history, Fuqua's good-guy gang is composed of folks marginalized by American society - it's led by an African American and includes an Asian immigrant (Korean action star Byung-hun Lee), a Mexican bandit (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a Comanche warrior (Martin Sensmeier), and an all-around misfit tracker whose clothing seems to be stitched out of recently killed critters (D'Onofrio).

Yet, despite a great cast and several terrific action sequences, Fuqua's film is largely forgettable.

A strangely sentimental, dewy-eyed pastiche of classic American westerns that boasts a sweeping orchestral score, this Magnificent Seven is filled with references to the work of famed western filmmakers, from John Ford to Sergio Leone, in addition to Sturges.

It's essentially a fan film - like those YouTube videos that gamers and sci-fi geeks create by remixing footage from Star Wars or Halo game-play animation. Except that Fuqua's fan film cost $100 million.

If the film inspires anything, it's a sense of wonder at the enduring power of Sturges' work.

Of course, the original Magnificent Seven itself was a remake, an American take on Japanese master Akira Kurosawa's historical epic Seven Samurai.

While Sturges and his screenwriter William Roberts used their artistry to produce a creative reconfiguration and reinterpretation of Kurosawa's picture, Fuqua and Pizzolatto merely pay homage. They parrot, simulate.

The story opens with a violent and seriously unsubtle prologue of Pure Evil, set in the tiny burg of Rose Creek, whose gentle farmers, craftsmen, and shopkeepers are under siege.

Having discovered gold in the area, villainous Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard) is driving out the residents, with help from mercenaries from a union-busting security firm that seems to be a mix between the historical Pinkerton and the contemporary military contractor Blackwater.

Bogue crashes a town meeting in the church house, where he lays down his laissez-faire free-market rap. "This country has long equated democracy with capitalism, capitalism with God," he tells the town's simple folk, who stare back in fear. "You are standing in the way of God."

I wish Fuqua and Pizzolatto had seized on this idea and used their band of good-guy outsiders to fashion a more boldly political film. Instead, they seem content playing cowboys and Indians.

tirdad@phillynews.com

215-854-2736


MOVIE REVIEW

The Magnificent Seven

** (Out of four stars)

Directed by Antoine Fuqua. With Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio. Distributed by MGM/Columbia Pictures.

Running time: 2 hours, 12 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (intense western violence, smoking, some profanity, suggestive material).

Playing at: Area theaters.

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