Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai is widely considered one of the greatest movies ever made, and although John Sturges’ 1960 western remake The Magnificent Seven didn’t quite match its source material’s critical or commercial success, it’s still considered one of the landmark films of the genre. With such big boots to fill, it’s no surprise that director Antoine Fuqua’s remake of The Magnificent Seven rides into theaters with high expectations and no small amount of hype.
What is a little surprising, however, is how easy Fuqua and his talented cast make it look to cooperatively carry the weight of all that historic baggage while making their version of the old story memorable in all the right ways.
Fuqua wisely hitches the project to Washington’s wagon
Directed by Fuqua from a script penned by The Equalizer writer Richard Wenk and True Detective writer Nic Pizzolatto, The Magnificent Seven casts Denzel Washington as a wandering bounty hunter in the 1870s who agrees to help a town besieged by sinister industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). In order to take back the town, Washington’s character recruits six dangerous men from various backgrounds to stand against Bogue’s army of ruthless mercenaries.
Along with Washington’s character, the ragtag team assembled to save the town includes a traumatized Civil War sharpshooter (Training Day actor Ethan Hawke), a charismatic gambler (Guardians of the Galaxy actor Chris Pratt), an eccentric tracker (Daredevil actor Vincent D’Onofrio), a dagger-wielding assassin (G.I. Joe: Retaliation actor Byung-hun Lee), a bandit on the run (Cake actor Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and an exiled Comanche warrior (Lilin’s Brood actor Martin Sensmeier). The group is commissioned to defend the dusty town by a woman (Haley Bennett) whose husband was murdered by Bogue, and she’s been given all the worldly possessions of the town’s inhabitants in order to hire what they hope will be their saviors.
While The Magnificent Seven is ostensibly an ensemble film, Fuqua wisely hitches the project to Washington’s wagon, letting the two-time Academy Award winner (who won his first leading-man Oscar for his performance in Fuqua’s Training Day) drive the story forward. His pistol-wielding, horse-riding, spur-wearing bounty hunter is the center of gravity for the film’s colorful characters, and Washington proves more than capable of both commanding your focus when the story calls for it and sharing the spotlight with his talented co-stars when appropriate.
The film’s cast go well beyond simply holding their own on the screen
In Kurosawa’s original story and many of the subsequent films inspired by it, there’s typically been a leading man and two or three characters that get the lion’s share of the camera’s attention and – in some cases – the best lines and other character-developing moments. Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven does an admirable job of setting itself apart from those films by giving all seven of its titular leads a satisfying amount of on-screen action that doesn’t make any of them feel shortchanged – or worse yet, making them feel like the weak links in the group.
Fortunately, Fuqua has good reason to spread the audience’s attention around.
Although great performances are expected from the likes of Washington and Hawke – and at this point, you know exactly what you’ll get from Pratt when he’s playing a charming rogue – the rest of the film’s cast go well beyond simply holding their own on the screen. D’Onofrio in particular offers something quite a bit different from what fans of his work in Daredevil and Jurassic World are likely to expect, and adds some layers (and quirks) to the burly tracker he plays that make him more than just a hired hero.
The same can be said of Byung-hun Lee’s character, who manages to be both compelling on his own and even more so in the scenes he shares with Hawke’s war-ravaged former soldier. Lee’s certainly no stranger to action sequences, but The Magnificent Seven offers him a nice opportunity to flex some of the muscles that don’t get as much work in pure action movies.
Sarsgaard also offers up a wonderfully sinister villain in Bartholomew Bogue, and manages to walk the fine line between genuinely frightening antagonist and over-the-top bad guy with his sweaty, subtly shaking take on the character that adds a physical component to his moral sickness.
Behind the camera, Fuqua proves that his knack for blending taut drama with intense action isn’t limited to films set against modern, urban backdrops, and brings everything he’s done so well in films like Training Day and 2014’s under-the-radar hit The Equalizer to this western adventure. There’s a sense that Fuqua is genuinely enjoying himself with his foray into westerns, and that enthusiasm bleeds through every shot.
Fuqua’s spin on The Magnificent Seven also follows in the musical footsteps of its 1960 predecessor with a fantastic, rousing score. Composed by two-time Academy Award winner James Horner, the score — which was completed posthumously due to Horner’s death last year — resonates throughout the film and serves as an emphatic reminder of how important music is to the western genre.
Although traditional westerns haven’t had a lot of success in theaters in recent years — even when they’re generating considerable award buzz — The Magnificent Seven has all the ingredients for both critical and commercial success. Led by an all-star ensemble that brings out the best in each actor and a talented director who fills the film with heart and the sort of old-school adventure aesthetic the western genre was built upon, The Magnificent Seven manages to be much more than a remake, and lives up the promise of its title.