Hollywood’s originality crisis continues with “The Magnificent Seven,” an echo of John Sturges’ 1960 remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 “Seven Samurai.” It’s a lukewarm clone of a decent adaptation of a masterpiece. It’s as if the American film industry, having outlasted celluloid, now makes movies with tracing paper.
Antoine Fuqua’s version feels less like a modern redesign than a wobbly trip on the WABAC Machine. The story returns us to a frontier West where powerful tyrants used hired guns to mercilessly steal every portion of the range they desired.
Peter Sarsgaard plays robber baron Bartholomew Bogue, slaughtering the citizens of Rose Creek for its mining value. Newly widowed Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) turns to traveling lawman Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) to round up as many tough hombres as needed to subdue Bogue’s invading army.
As the title implies, this is not a large-scale recruiting triumph. The limited defenders Chisolm can sign up are antisocial bad guys but good at heart, like an old-timey Suicide Squad.
There’s Josh Farraday (Chris Pratt), a cocksure gambler; Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), a former Confederate sniper turned disillusioned wreck; Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), his sword-swinging Asian best buddy; Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), a violent but public-spirited mountain man, and Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a Mexican desperado. Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), a Comanche warrior, volunteers his archery services for inexplicable reasons, and the widow Cullen, who knows how to aim a rifle herself, joins the diverse, revisionist team — but is not magnificent enough to be included in the title.
Then again, who is? Washington, the star of the show, is far beneath the swaggering, larger-than-life “Training Day” performance that won him an overdue best actor Academy Award. There he played a dark and conflicted cop. While he rides and shoots like a Wild West show stuntman, his Chisolm is a bland, underwhelming personality.
As for the supporting cast, screenwriters Richard Wenk of “The Expendables 2” and “True Detective” creator Nic Pizzolatto have created a second-rate pack of one-note characters who never evolve.
The motley sideline crew is occasionally rescued by extraordinary acting. D’Onofrio does his Bible-thumping dialogue in an eccentric high-pitched squeak of a voice just to make his supporting role a little more extreme. Sarsgaard portrays his villain with such intense seriousness that he’s amusing. That makes them memorable standouts, working better than Pratt’s gagged up, overly effervescent version of comic relief. While he happily shoots dozens of lowlifes in each new showdown, he misses the bull’s-eye of mirth by a country mile.
The acting ensemble is broadly multiethnic, which is a fine idea in general but feels hokey and out of place in a tale set so far in the bad old days. Would these exotic renegades really join forces?
Like Tom Cruise playing a U.S. Civil War veteran turned heroic Japanese blade swinger in “The Last Samurai,” this feels like a cheesy look at the 19th century through a wishfully inclusive 21st-century lens. It’s hard to understand how several of the Seven have any skin in the game.
The action scenes of the Seven’s guerrilla warfare against the greedy capitalist’s henchmen are a greatest-hits medley, with none of the combat handled in a realistic vein. Remember seeing bad men shot into coffins, off the tops of buildings and blown overhead with dynamite? Here’s another helping.
Fuqua is not creating a western as much as a big-budget PG-13 action adventure film — huge skirmishes, little story. Although he detonates an unlimited supply of bullet squibs to perforate every building and person barricaded inside, his set pieces don’t hit with the distinctive and ultra-dynamic filming style that Sturges (who later made “The Great Escape”) packed in his film 56 years earlier. Or Kurosawa’s, half a decade before that. Bummer.