I’m “biast” (con): really tired of the remake craze
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Here’s an idea: Take the “original” 1960 version of The Magnificent Seven, about a buncha white guys coming to the aid of poor Mexican villagers, and remake it exactly the same for 2016, and all of a sudden it has a whole anti-anti-immigrant thing going on, an atmosphere that scoffs at the border-based bigotry that is so popular these days.
Here’s an idea: Take inspiration from the actual original Magnificent Seven — 1954’s Seven Samurai — and do a remake set in the not-so-old West of 1940s Japanese internment camps, in which patriotic Japanese-Americans fight back against being treated like traitors and criminals, and suddenly a shameful era in American history that no one wants to talk about gets epic kickass big-screen exposure.
Here’s an idea: Redo The Magnificent Seven and have a diverse band of justice-minded rogues and scoundrels — led by a black man, to avoid White Savior Syndrome — come to the aid of a free black town in the Old West that is being harassed and terrorized by a rapacious robber-baron mining-company owner who wants to steal their land, and now you’ve got a #BlackLivesMatter vibe that could not be more of the moment. (There really were free black towns in the Old West, so you don’t even have to make that up.)
Here’s an idea: While you’re inventing your new gang of badasses, make two of the seven women — maybe an old hand and a young woman craving freedom and adventure who learns hard lessons from her older mentor — and now you’re beginning to right the wrong of how women get written out of history, and out of movies. (Female gunslingers were a thing! It’s not a feminist fantasy!)
But find a damn reason to remake a classic film if that’s what you gotta do. Uncover an angle on the story that was not previously explored. Find a way to make it fresh and different and relevant for today. Make sure no one who has paid good money to see your movie finds themselves wondering why they bothered, why they’re supposed to care about your movie, and why they shouldn’t have just stayed home and watched the 1960 film on demand (it’s available all over the place).
Spoiler: Director Antoine Fuqua (Southpaw, The Equalizer) did not do any of these things. Instead, he just threw every cliché of the Western up on the screen. From the moment Denzel Washington’s lawman steps up the saloon doors and the piano player stops playing to the “surprise” redemptive change of heart of a bad-man-who-ain’t-so-bad-after all, there is not a single, solitary sliver of this same-old Magnificent Seven that is unexpected. The villain — a robber-baron mining bossman played by Peter Sarsgaard (Black Mass, Experimenter) — is every greedy Western bad guy ever who’s trying to drive off the innocent townfolk who dare to be scratching out a living on land that is rightfully his. (Harvey Korman was much funnier in the same role in Blazing Saddles.) Men will fly through plate-glass windows onto dusty streets. Bored saloon doxies will sashay around in the background (the Old West equivalent of weary strippers swinging around a pole as set dressing). The ending is so absolutely foregone a conclusion that it’s the most criminal thing that happens onscreen.
There is no irony in any of this, no apparent awareness that the cascade of clichés is a pile of junk with which we are already intimately familiar. There is no humor, no winking, no having any sort of fun with it. There’s no fun at all here, just the rote tedium of going through motions that often don’t even make sense. After Washington’s (2 Guns, Flight) Chisolm is hired by that town under siege to fight off the villain harassing them, he wanders around assembling a band of men to help with the battle, and half of them are entirely random, men he does not know and has no reason to trust. And the script — by Richard Wenk (The Equalizer, The Expendables 2) and Nic Pizzolatto — doesn’t bother trying to build any relationships among them. They are as tossed together as the plot, which fails to create any energy or excitement, which has no dramatic rise and fall and features no personal journeys or discoveries for anyone. It is merely a matter of This Happens, Then That Happens, Then Some of This, Later Some More of That.
It’s true that the band of seven is wonderfully racially diverse, and features not only Chris Pratt (Jurassic World, Guardians of the Galaxy), Ethan Hawke (Regression, Ten Thousand Saints), and an almost unrecognizable Vincent D’Onofrio (Run All Night, The Judge), but also Korean actor Byung-hun Lee (Terminator Genisys, Red 2), Mexican actor Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Native American actor Martin Sensmeier. This cast looks great onscreen together, and we need to see more casts like this. But that’s not story, and diversity by itself it is not enough to make a movie, especially when the nonwhite characters are not defined by their nonwhiteness. That’s a good thing in general: nonwhite actors should be cast in colorblind roles far more often than they are, which they mostly are here apart from a few tossed-off asides about their nonwhiteness that have no impact whatsoever on anything. But in this particular case, if a diverse cast is all a movie has that’s fresh and yet there’s no exploration of their experience as nonwhite people in a genre that desperately needs that, then, well, as I said, that diversity is not enough.
And that gets diminished — severely — by the utter lack of gender diversity. Sure, Chisolm is hired by the recently widowed Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett: The Equalizer, Marley & Me), but she is all but a nonentity. She exists in the story to motivate Chisolm — she reminds him of his sister, apparently — and so that the gang of badass dudes can laugh at her spunk, and then she is shuffled off and barely appears again unless it’s to get a bit of cleavage onscreen. (Bennett looks so much like Jennifer Lawrence that I like to imagine that the script was offered to Lawrence and she laughed at what an empty shell the “character” is, and was insulted to think that anyone thought she’d be happy with such a role.) At one point, when the gang has been assembled and is en route to the town accompanied by Cullen, Hawke’s former Confederate army sniper finds himself amused by the team, how they’ve got all the players: “the drunk Irishman,” “the Texican”… and “the female.” Maybe this was meant to be a jokey reference to Western clichés? But it sounds more like this is taking place on the Enterprise holodeck and someone let a Ferengi play in the Old West program.
(Sometimes, when I’m struggling to find something nice to say about a movie, I joke to myself that, “Hey, everything was in focus,” that, you know, the film achieves a basic level of competence in craft. But I cannot say the same here. I saw Seven in IMAX, but the film was not shot in IMAX, and the process used to blow up the image results in bits and pieces of it looking fuzzy and blurry too often.)
I wish I could figure out what anyone involved here thought the point of the whole endeavor was. The most generous explanation I can come up with — and it’s not that kind — is that Fuqua & Co. figured it was easier to try to recapture some old Hollywood magic instead of creating their own. But there’s one tiny tell here that suggests they knew precisely how bad an idea that was. During the big finale battle, suddenly there’s a quick horse stunt outta nowhere. Though there’s been nothing like this before, now Chisolm is doing a fancy riding trick in the saddle. It happens very quickly, it takes place in near darkness, and it’s over and gone before you realize it was happening. There’s a furtiveness and a sense of embarrassment to it, as if as soon as it began, the movie knew it was a mistake, and instantly vowed not to try that again.
If only that impulse had kicked in the moment someone suggested remaking The Magnificent Seven in the first place.