Director Antoine Fuqua has dabbled in remake territory before – 2014’s The Equalizer was an update of the 1980s television series, albeit with significant changes – but his latest effort finds him saddled (no pun intended) with the daunting task of reimagining one of the most popular and beloved Western films of all time, The Magnificent Seven.
The best remakes are those that offer something fresh while respecting the source material, and this action-packed shoot-em-up is no different: while the original film centered on a group of white gunfighters protecting a poor Mexican village from rampaging bandits, Fuqua’s version opts for a more multicultural approach. This time around, Oscar winner Denzel Washington leads the titular defenders (whose ranks also include a Korean immigrant, a Mexican desperado and a Native American warrior), as they defend a town full of white farmers from a ruthless industrialist.
It’s 1879, and wealthy mining baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, devouring scenery at every opportunity) is scooping up parcels of nearby land after a massive gold strike in the hills near Rose Creek. When the villagers balk at giving up their homes – especially for the paltry fee Bogue offers – he responds by burning down their church and massacring several of the town’s citizens, promising to return in three weeks to dispose of any remaining holdouts. With the threat of death looming on the horizon and her husband’s body still warm in the street, Emma (Haley Bennett) sets out in search of a solution.
Enter the soft-spoken, black-clad Sam Chisolm (Washington, absurdly charismatic), a “duly sworn warrant officer” with a steely eyed glare and a weakness for the disenfranchised and downtrodden. He agrees to train the inhabitants of Rose Creek to defend themselves, but this isn’t exactly a one-man job: he’ll need a few reinforcements. The first comes in the guise of Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), a hard-drinking gambler with a fondness for sleight of hand tricks that backs Chisolm’s play as he serves a warrant in a crowded saloon.
Joining their ranks on the journey to Rose Creek are Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke, sporting facial hair as elaborate as his character’s name), a former Confederate sniper struggling with the lingering horrors of war; throwing knife expert Billy Rooks (Byung-hun Lee in a scene-stealing twist on the James Coburn role from the original film); notorious outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), whose path has crossed Chisolm’s more than once; and Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), a Comanche warrior on a spiritual quest. And let’s not forget burly mountaineer Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), who mutters scripture to himself while dispatching enemies with his hatchet.
Working from a script co-written by True Detective‘s Nic Pizzolatto (and devoid of the show’s solemn, unsmiling tone), Fuqua punctuates the intricately choreographed gun battles of The Magnificent Seven with plenty of humor, and some surprisingly tender character moments. Chisolm’s decision to help the citizens of Rose Creek is due more to personal reasons than the sum he’s been offered, which we discover during the film’s third act, and the relationship between Rooks and Robicheaux is a highlight – I’d pay good money for a spinoff film about their adventures together.
But most theatergoers will come for the action, and this is where the film truly shines, with Fuqua staging one memorable sequence after another. From Bogue’s opening attack on Rose Creek, to Chisolm’s violent introduction, to the thrilling climax featuring explosions, booby traps, a Gatling gun and an almost comical body count, The Magnificent Seven is pure popcorn filmmaking, and a welcome alternative to the brooding revisionist Westerns of recent years. It may lack the timeless quality of its predecessor, but Fuqua’s updated spin on an old classic is a hell of a lot of fun.