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Review by C.J. Bunce

It’s almost more useful to critique the critics than the new movie The Magnificent Seven, released in theaters this weekend.  You’ll find the whole lot so predictable.  The Magnificent Seven is a reboot or a remake (call it what you want) and so the best that critics are willing to do is provide the phoned-in, knee-jerk dismissal of it being something less than the original and therefore not worth the time it takes them to write a thoughtful review.  Or they will compare it to the best Westerns of all time, and tell you why it falls short.  The better reviews will point out that it’s a remake of the 1960 classic Western starring Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen.  The smarter ones will remind you that even that version was based on the original Japanese version, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.  Paycheck earned.  Existence justified.  But that’s all too easy.

Yes, the original 1960 John Sturges version is both a great Western and quite fun (it’s on my top ten list).  The darker original Japanese film is more dramatic, brilliant in its simplicity, and not so much a rousing popcorn movie.  Is the 2016 remake among the best Westerns of all time?  Maybe not.  But is it a good Western?  Absolutely.  Do we always want to see the best picture nominee when we go to the theater?  I don’t.  I want to have fun.  And The Magnificent Seven is a blast.  In fact, critics are looking at it wrong.  It’s actually the year’s best superhero movie.

I understand the modern film critic’s dilemma, especially when Hollywood seems to have lost its imagination, churning out remake after remake.  It’s the same old song:  If you were a fan of–or better yet–love the original, you’re more likely than not to brush off the remake altogether, or at least not give it the attention it deserves.  Those who never saw the original or those who can view a remake as its own incarnation–those who can tell themselves their feelings for the remake will not “ruin” their feelings about the original–probably enjoyed the Star Trek reboot from 2009, or Always, or Assault on Precinct 13, or The Flight of the Phoenix, The Fog, The Jackal, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Money Pit, Ocean’s Eleven, RoboCop, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, or Walking Tall.  Each of these, viewed on their own merits is a great film.  They may even be good remakes.  Those who avoid The Magnificent Seven are missing out on a fun outing.  And a good remake.

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Today’s ensemble movie is mostly found in the superhero genre.  Stack up The Magnificent Seven against The Avengers, The Avengers 2, or Captain America: Civil War, or any DC Comics superhero film of the past 20 years, and it leaves them all in its dust in its success in introducing a team, getting them to work together, and MacGyver the situation into some giant climactic battles.  Each of the titular seven stars of the movie have their own extraordinary abilities, they just don’t wear capes.  It’s an ensemble piece.  A superhero team-up.  So why don’t we have a casting Oscar?  The three casting directors knew what they were doing–they created the teams for Suicide Squad, Batman v. Superman, No Country for Old Men, True Grit, Sin City, and Star Wars Episode VIII.

Denzel Washington plays Sam Chisolm.  He’s a warrant officer/bounty hunter like Christoph Waltz’s character in Django Unchained.  He’s serious.  He’s decisive.  He’s tough.  He encounters Emma Cullen, played by Haley Bennett, who is equal parts Jennifer Lawrence, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Firefly’s Jewel Staite.  She’s the tougher than usual (but still unfortunately pigeon-holed) damsel in distress, whose life was turned upside down when her husband (played by Matt Bomer) is murdered along with many others by Bartholomew Bogue, a gold prospector of the wealthy landed gentry variety (Peter Sarsgaard) who is the story’s villain.  She assembles the townfolk’s wealth in a saddlebag, and that pittance is enough in principle for Chisolm to assemble a team to defend the town upon Bogue’s return.  He then begins building the team.

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The number two position goes to a young hotshot and self-proclaimed lady’s man, Josh Faraday, played by Chris Pratt, in the slot originally filled by a then similarly popular Steve McQueen.  Fans of Washington and Pratt will be happy with their roles and performances as they get plenty of great scenes, many memorable, and Pratt gets all the best one-liners.  The next three actors in line step up to what may be the best performances of their careers, which is saying a lot for three great actors.  That begins with the four-time Oscar-nominated Ethan Hawke as Goodnight Robicheaux, an ex-Confederate who is unparalleled with a rifle.  He has killed plenty, but is losing his edge thanks to alcohol or time.  Hawke’s performance is as nuanced as any of the other brilliant performances of his career.  Is it time for Hawke (Dead Poet’s Society, White Fang, Alive, Gattaca, Training Day, Assault on Precinct 13) to switch gears from the complex leading role to instead master the supporting character role?  If this film is any indication, we have much more to look forward to from Hawke.

The next position is taken by Byung-hun Lee as Billy Rocks.  He’s the lightning quick knife thrower (played in the original by James Coburn).  Lee is the next major action star–or should be–yet he’s carved himself out a niche as a standout supporting role dynamo in some of the past decade’s best action films (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, RED 2, Terminator Genisys).  He has a much bigger role in The Magnificent Seven as Goodnight’s confidante (rounding out a solid Butch and Sundance duo) and proves he’s being underutilized by Hollywood.  Then there is Vincent D’Onofrio as Jack Horne, a gruff but God-loving scalp hunter who Pratt’s character aptly calls a “bear in people clothes.”  Could we like this guy any more?  Always willing to dig into the classic character role (just look at Full Metal Jacket, Men in Black, and Daredevil) here he does something that has been avoided in pretty much every Western since the 1960s.  D’Onofrio switches up his accent and character to follow in the classic Western role of the cracked voice, off-kilter oddball.  Think How the West Was Won and Blazing Saddles’ Slim Pickens, Stagecoach’s Andy Devine, Rio Bravo and The Far Country’s Walter Brennan.  And D’Onofrio is brilliant here. His backstory deserves its own picture.  His character is also a bit iffy in the vein of Telly Savalas in The Dirty Dozen.  Which brings us to the nature of this film as an ensemble picture.

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Seven is a big number of lead characters for a story.  Like The Dirty Dozen, or The Avengers, or Ocean’s Eleven, or The Guns of Navarone, or The Italian Job, and the original incarnations of this film, some characters are going to get short-shrift.  Here that is the case principally for the damsel in distress and the #6 and #7 spots in the out-for-blood band, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as the Texican Vasquez, and Native American actor Martin Sensmeier as ace arrow-wielder and Comanche outcast Red Harvest (one of the coolest Western characters we’ve seen since Bone Tomahawk).  Yet director Antoine Fuqua somehow gives even the last two members of the team some great scenes.

Fuqua has the makings of the next J.J. Abrams.  His films always show a great cinematic eye, whether it’s with Washington and Hawke in Training Day, or with Mark Wahlberg in Shooter, or Washington again in The Equalizer.  The Magnificent Seven is another Fuqua signature work.  He also deserves props for not taking the easy route and relying on Elmer Bernstein’s famous original score to grab the audience, saving the famous theme for the end credits only, and supplying instead a measured, beautiful accompaniment courtesy of James Horner with his final musical score.  And thanks to Fuqua and his casting directors, you’re not likely to find a more diverse cast in any film this year.

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Violent, but not bloody or graphic like a Quentin Tarentino film, and barely meriting its PG-13 rating with its lack of profanity, nudity, or sex, this is a fun film for Western fans of all ages.

The Magnificent Seven is now in theaters everywhere.

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