Friday, September 23, 2016

Suicide Squad: Ensemble the biggest draw in overlong but entertaining "Magnificent Seven"

The Magnificent Seven (2016)
132 min., rated PG-13.

As a general rule, all remakes are unnecessary, unless the original films weren’t any good to begin with. “The Magnificent Seven” is a remake of a remake — John Sturges’ 1960 Western of the same name was itself reworked from Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece “Seven Samurai.” That should mean that this retelling is as fresh as a tumbleweed. The good news, then, is that this one isn’t half-bad when viewed on its own terms and actually makes for a better version of “Suicide Squad.” Director Antoine Fuqua (2015’s “Southpaw”) and screenwriters Richard Wenk (2014’s “The Equalizer”) and Nic Pizzolatto (HBO’s “True Detective”) might make a few updates, but the multicultural ensemble is still the biggest draw.

It is 1879 in Rose Creek, where decent farmers are being driven off their land for gold by oily capitalist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who sets the local church aflame and shoots down those who stand up to him. When her husband (Matt Bomer) is murdered in cold blood, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) refuses to let her home and town be taken from her. She makes a proposition to Wichita bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) with the offer of a small fortune if he helps defend Rose Creek from Bogue and his henchmen. Chisolm eventually rounds up a ragtag of strays: drunken card-trick-playing gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt); legendary but PTSD-suffering sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his buddy, knife-throwing assassin Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee); Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo); trapping mountain man Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio); and lone Comanche archer Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). Chisolm included, there are seven, and will they be ready to hunker down and ward off Bogue?

Leaving a trail of bodies but still finding time to crack wise, “The Magnificent Seven” is a traditional Western that embraces all of the classic tropes but with some snappy (and somewhat anachronistic) interplay. Like any team-assembling film, the getting-there is about as fun as the third-act face-off. It is a measure of how well a cast can improve a film with their distinct personalities, even if one cares a little less about these men as characters than the engaging actors playing them. What the film lacks in soul and characterization for these intriguing, fantastically named lawmen makes up for it with a satisfying, strategically planned showdown in the town. Director Fuqua has a skillful handle on all of the action, never resorting to the trap of shaky-cam as so many contemporary action films do, and expectations are particularly subverted in terms of who are the last men standing. Also, never mind the PG-13 rating; the violence is savage and anything but watered-down.

Leading the seven is a reliably cool Denzel Washington, who gives a rather low-key performance as Chisolm. Riding around in black from hat to boot, Chisolm is a compelling enigma, but once we learn more of his backstory, it’s a case of too little, too late. Positioned as the comic relief of the bunch as Faraday, Chris Pratt’s smart-aleck charisma is never not pleasing here; leave it to him to divert two gunmen with a card trick while they’re holding him up. Ethan Hawke might have the juiciest part as the haunted Goodnight Robicheaux, and a strangely high-pitched Vincent D’Onofrio gets to to be the biggest live-wire as the bearded Jack Horne, while Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Martin Sensmeier only register with the physical demands of their roles. Throughout all of this, Haley Bennett holds her own against her male co-stars and leaves an affecting imprint as the recently widowed Emma, who seeks righteousness but will gladly take revenge on Bogue. Last but not least, a Western—or, really, any genre film—is said to only be as good as its villain, and Peter Sarsgaard gets to be deliciously merciless without literally twirling his mustache and manages to inject legitimate menace into the garden-variety part.

Faultlessly cast and handsomely photographed, the finished cut should have either been 90 minutes or exchanged some of the plodding overlength in those 132 minutes for more character meat. Any character substance that comes in is revealed too late in the game to prove any additional interest or catharsis. Though it blows chances for more lasting power, “The Magnificent Seven” fits the bill as an entertaining oater. It doesn’t have to be weighty or meaningful when watching enormously charismatic actors play with guns in the Old West will suffice.

Grade: B - 

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