Thursday, September 22, 2016

I saw the New Magnificent Seven...

John Sturges' "The Magnificent Seven '60", like the film that inspired it, Akira Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai", is a tale of courage and doing the right thing. It's about a group of men (mercenaries, if you will) who fight to protect a village from a group of bandits. The movie is also sprawling (particularly its Elmer Bernstein score), pulpish and at times, borderline superheroic: a western Avengers or Justice League, one could argue. (The concept has even translated into Peplum with "The Seven Magnificent Gladiators"; space opera with "Battle Beyond the Stars"; and cute animation with "A Bug's Life".) 

The star power of the '60 original set the bar high, with the presence of Yul Brenner; Steve McQueen; Charles Bronson; James Coburn; Robert Vaughn; Horst Buchholz; and Brad Dexter. Their adversary was portrayed by Eli Wallach, who makes the mad Mexican, Calvera, one of the screen's most memorable.

The film's sequels, "Return of the Seven"; "Guns of the Magnificent Seven"; and "The Magnificent Seven Ride!" are sturdy follow-ups with impressive casts in their own right. The same can be said of the underrated '90s television series, which I urge my readers to seek whenever the opportunity arises. 

It was only a matter of time before a new "Magnificent Seven" appeared, and it now comes courtesy of director Antoine "Equalizer" Fuqua and screenwriters Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk. It's not really a remake the trio offers, but more a Reconstruction Era extrapolation on the theme (i.e. a companion piece, which could be perceived as a roundabout, spiritual sequel).

The characters, for one thing, are new. There's no Yul Brenner/George Kennedy/Lee Van Cleef/Michael Biehn hero called Chris. Now we have Sam Chisolm, a Bass Reeves kind of guy, portrayed by Denzel Washington. Chisolm is, in fact, a bounty hunter: the sort of gritty gent that a particular group of Rose Creek citizens need in order to ward off invaders. For the record, it's actually persecuted and embittered Emma Cullen, portrayed by Haley Bennett, who sets the transaction for protection and revenge in motion, adding an offbeat sensitivity to the austere circumstances.

The baddie is Bartholomew Bogue, played with heartless relish by Peter Sarsgaard. Some of you may remember Sarsgaard's weird, but sympathetic villain in "Green Lantern", but here he's an all-out, unscrupulous, church-burning murderer of Cullen's husband, Matthew (Matt Bomer). Bogue is also damn proud of his power-hungry lust, an Old West equivalent to Jessie Eisenberg's Lex Luther, and to enforce his standing as a greedy rogue, Bogue has a small army of bullies to enforce his sadistic needs, while Chisolm has...well (with himself included), seven.

Chisolm's back-up consists of the charismatic and action prone Chris Pratt, as gambler Josh Farraday; his "Jurassic World" co-star, Vincent D'Onofrio as tracker Jack Horne; Lee Byung-hun as blade-tossing/Coburn-ish Billy Rocks; Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as wayward outlaw Vasquez; Martin Sensmeier as skilled Comanche Red Harvest; and Ethan Hawke as the gentleman shootist Goodnight Robicheaux, a variation of Vaughn's character from the '60s version and Anthony's Starke's from the television series. 

Though they are small in number, they compensate such by the virtue of their hearts, which prevails even among those with bleak and questionable pasts. The seven not only want to save the town folk, but (if fortunate should allow) redeem themselves in the process, proving in an unspoken way that there's a distinction between right and wrong: that above all, right can emerge victorious in times of turmoil and despair.

The ending of Sturges' film questions (albeit subtly) whether Chris' intrepid band gained redemption, and in the case of the '16 version, much the same surfaces. However, as with the original, the ambiguity matters little. That a noble cause is pursued is what counts. After all, these men are proud (and when push comes to shove, conscientious enough) to take a stand and inspire Rose Creek's inhabitants to step up to the plate and hold their own. 

"Magnificent Seven'"s formula is obviously nothing new, but worth repeating. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., villainy tends to triumph when good people do nothing to thwart it. That concept characterizes many adventure films, because it defines the impetuous (and often perplexing) ups and downs of everyday life. Perhaps this is why the "Magnificent Seven" franchise continues to be rediscovered and why it's galloped forth yet again.

When indecisiveness and appeasement toward the enemy is advocated by our leaders and the general media, people naturally yearn for stories with a moral base and a sense of dutiful purpose. There are times when we have no choice but to challenge those who dare take our happiness and freedom away. Fuqua's "Magnificent Seven" reminds us of this. It may not be special-effects laden like a DC/Marvel team-up, but this cowboy sojourn (as with the chapters that precede it) continues a fine and reassuring history. Its message is too precious to ignore, and this reboot wouldn't exist if the need for such failed to resonate.

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