Review: The Magnificent Seven (2016)
The Mechanical SevenDoes this sound familiar? In the post-Civil War American West a rapacious city slicker bullies and intimidates the population of a small town in order to acquire their land and make himself incredibly rich in the process. The under-fire townsfolk hold a church meeting to discuss their options, arguing back-and-forth over whether to abandon the town or stay and fight despite the certainty of defeat. Although they’re outnumbered and out-armed they are ultimately motivated to fight back against the villain and his army of thugs by a charismatic African-American hero and his sidekick, a hard-drinker with a talent for nimble gun-play, leading to a final act that descends into unfettered and largely nonsensical chaos.
Yep, turns out that 2016’s The Magnificent Seven is, unexpectedly, an uninspired re-hash of not just one, but two different movies - the much-loved 1968 The Magnificent Seven (obviously) and also, for some mind-bending reason, Mel Brooks’ 1974 classic comedy Blazing Saddles. Think about what that means for a moment. The makers of the new Magnificent Seven thought it would be a good idea to strip-mine Blazing Saddles not for its biting satire, trenchant political commentary or hilarious jokes, but for its plot. If you think this sounds like the behaviour of a production team that doesn’t quite know why they’re making the film they’re making, then I can’t disagree.
In principle I’m not against a re-make of The Magnificent Seven (or of most films really), but when I’m watching any film, re-make or otherwise, it’s nice if the filmmakers can convey some sense of why they’ve chosen to tell this particular story. The Magnificent Seven is a movie that doesn’t seem to have any sense of why it actually exists. It re-creates familiar plot beats with no apparent idea of what made them work before. It lumbers from set-piece to set-piece with the sleep-addled befuddlement of someone who has no idea as to why he’s going to all this effort. To me it was like watching someone assemble a piece of kit-set furniture that’s been delivered to his house by mistake - he doesn’t need it and has no place to put the final product, but those empty slots and Allen keys are somehow too tempting to resist.
Why create an (admirably) racially diverse new Seven and then give them nothing interesting to do or say? (So they can look good on the poster?) Why amp up the courage, resourcefulness and screen-time of your sole female character if you’re going to dress her in a succession of ridiculous sexy-western-cosplay outfits? Why hire a first-rate cast and then (with the exception of Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke) provide their characters with absolutely no motivation for anything that they do? And if you do decide to go to the effort of giving your lead character a motivation, why make it a standard plot-o-matic revenge beef that completely undercuts the central dramatic thrust of the story you’re re-making? (None of the original Seven needed or wanted a revenge motive - they were cynics and mercenaries who ultimately found something profound and redemptive by sacrificing their lives for a group of good people they barely knew. Okay, that may sound corny and a little thin to you, but at least it’s something.) Why painstakingly set up the geography of the final showdown only to have it descend into a chaotic, ludicrously overblown, poorly-edited and tension-free re-staging of Saving Private Ryan’s Normandy landing sequence? Why, why, why?
In fairness, the movie is reasonably good fun in the early going, and there are many little bits-and-pieces to enjoy throughout, mainly courtesy of the actors - anything that features Denzel Washington in the lead role isn’t going to be completely without entertainment value or interest. But The Magnificent Seven is a film that takes a tried-and-tested formula that has survived lesser budgets and much more modest talents, only to deliver a loose and soulless jumble that never threatens to come together at any point. One thing no movie formula can ever overcome is a lack of purpose or conviction.