The most magnificent quality of Antoine Fuqua’s latest film is that it is neither magnificently bad nor magnificently good. For all its bullets and bluster, The Magnificent Seven is achingly mediocre. Its virtues and vices mostly break even. One moment the the film swings in the direction of disaster only to then swing back into gleeful action entertainment. Point being: you could do a lot worse than this, but you could also do a lot better.
What’s admirable about Fuqua, who directed Training Day, is his insistence on not repeating the past. “People say, ‘Oh, Westerns are hard to sell.’ Well, they’re hard to sell if everybody in the Western looks one way,” Fuqua said at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. He was not only talking about the film’s ability to find success across international markets, but representation itself. The plot from previous iterations of The Magnificent Seven has largely remained unchanged, but the difference in Fuqua's version resides in the casting. At least, that's how it looks. The unfortunate thing is that while Fuqua seems to believe there is inherent merit in diversifying casts, his lineup is actually more homogenous than it seems. Let's break it down.
Denzel Washington leads the pack as Chisolm, a laconic bounty hunter who primarily looks out for himself. After a little persuasion, he enlists the help of Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Martin Sensmeier. There is also Haley Bennett, playing the revengeful Emma Cullen, who is excluded from being in the boy’s club. While the movie is a step in the right direction, it’s not quite a revolution. The cast is still predominantly made up of white men.
Then there’s this quote from Fuqua: “You’re not going to get the Asian market excited about it if all the Chinese guy does is work on the railroad. And I won’t get black people go see it if all it is is the slaves.” Again, Fuqua is not wrong. Minority characters shouldn’t be reduced to subservient or stereotypical roles. This is 2016. But instead of writing interesting parts for his “Asian” characters or his “black” characters, he peddles vapid screenwriting. While the slam-bang action of The Magnificent Seven doesn’t disappoint, it leaves a lot to be desired from its central characters. The details we’re given about each member in this coterie of gunmen are exclusively combat-related. One character can precisely throw a knife, another is a trained sharpshooter, and so on.
The result of omitting characteristics is that the “Magnificent Seven” remain just that: an anonymous batch of seven individuals without any real defining qualities other than their fighting skills.
Perhaps this is why hearing Fuqua talk about turning a profit in foreign markets is a bit painful. He’s cavalier in his diagnosis of prospective audiences. His theories about why the Western genre is dying come across as half-baked and lazy. “Even white people get tired of seeing the same guy over and over,” Fuqua says. But what is The Magnificent Seven if not a middling facsimile of past cinema? He talks about the recycling of “the same guy over and over” again, only to cast two of the largest, most recognizable movie stars today in Washington and Pratt. Re-reading his remarks it doesn’t seem like Fuqua is all that interested in switching the script, or treading new territory. It’s tired tokenism.
Audiences are not hungry for revisionist Westerns where the only elements being revised are weaponry, profanity, and attitude. Watching Pratt strut around as a mix of John Wayne and Andy Dwyer loses its charm fast. Even Washington, who never failed to be hypnotizing in a movie, is merely adequate here. Any joy that comes from seeing our favorite working actors thrust into another era dissipates by around the 20-minute mark. The novelty—and nostalgia—invariably wears off. And once it does, we’re left with a cavalcade of clichés from the Westerns of yesteryear. The rambling monologues about justice, liberty, and operating outside the law; the booze fueled brawls that derail plans; the shootouts and stand-offs that blend together in a haze of cigarette smoke. Contemporary aesthetics aside, The Magnificent Seven isn’t that much different than the films it’s paying homage to.
Either Fuqua is unaware of his own cinematic reprocessing, or he is aware, but has decided to willfully spin a false narrative to pander to modern audiences. There’s no winning scenario in this situation. As a final sentiment during TIFF’s press conference with the cast Fuqua said, “I'm hoping if this is successful, we’ll get to see more Westerns—more diverse and interesting Westerns.”
At least we’re on the same page.