They like to say that westerns are dead, but that’s a lie and you know it. Motion pictures set in the North American west during the 1800s are made every single year. They attract impressive casts and have meaningful things to say about the American pioneer myth and our troubled collective past in this country. But ever since Spaghetti Westerns started bathing the old western legends in blood, and especially since Blazing Saddles broke our sepia-colored nostalgia goggles in half, we have been living in the era of the revisionist western. The old tropes were there to be subverted or mocked openly, and rarely – if ever – simply enjoyed.
Antoine Fuqua’s remake of The Magnificent Seven is not a revisionist western, in the tradition of Unforgiven or even Django Unchained. It is such an unapologetic throwback to old-fashioned western heroism that “de-visionist” is the only descriptor that reasonably comes to mind. It’s an uncomplicated, handsome, exciting action-adventure. It is set in the old west, and it has horse stunts and brothels and poker cheats and dynamite and townsfolk bickering in the church about Howard Johnson being right that Howard Johnson is right (basically) and if there is anything truly important on its mind it has been buried underneath thousands of spent bullet casings.
And there ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.
Clichés are only a problem when you’re sick and tired of them, so it’s hard to complain about this new version of The Magnificent Seven, because it brings back western thrills that have barely been touched in decades. The stoicism, the machismo, the camaraderie, everything old is newish again and while it would be a stretch to say we that were miserable without them, it sure is nice to visit with these old standbys for the first time in a long time.
The story goes that an evil bastard named Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) has given a tiny town a couple of weeks to either accept a meager payout for their land or get themselves murdered instead. Bogue lays waste to several of the more able-bodied men in town, including one played by Matt Bomer (making him the sexiest corpse in the west). So his wife Emma (Haley Bennett) decides to use every penny she’s got to hire some gunmen to clean up the town and take on Bogue’s army, and the best – and not for nothing also the first – person she finds is a U.S. Marshal named Chisolm, played by Denzel Washington.
Chisolm, for reasons of his own, takes her up on the arrangement and assembles a ragtag team of misfits to take on Bogue. There’s a card shark named Faraday (Chris Pratt), whom Chisolm enlists for no particular reason, and an outlaw named Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), who signs up in exchange for a second chance at freedom. There’s a sharpshooter with a cowardly streak named Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) as well as his protégé, a knife thrower named Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee). There’s a trapper named Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio) and a Native American warrior named Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier).
That’s a whole lot of folks. It talks half of The Magnificent Seven just to introduce them all. But unlike the recent “men on a mission” blockbuster The Suicide Squad, which kept doling out the same exposition about its antiheroes over and over again, Fuqua’s film keeps throwing his cast into odd pairings and amusing situations. The film never quite repeats itself, so that by the time The Magnificent Seven finally gets to around its second action sequence (of, essentially, only three) it plays like a natural extension of the plot instead of an overdue payoff. And by the time the film’s last shootout comes around, boy howdy, is it a doozy.
Stunts, explosions, twists and turns and roundabouts, The Magnificent Seven pulls out all the stops in this whiz-bang conclusion. It’s an exhilarating and damn near exhausting experience, and reason enough to make this new version of The Magnificent Seven in the first place, even after the story has been done so very many times before.
But perhaps there is another reason, and a welcome one. In a story like this, in which the heroes are outnumbered and most of them will probably die, the audience will be forced to look at the survivors as a message unto themselves. They must have survived for a reason, thematically speaking. And looking at who, exactly, makes it out of Fuqua’s version of a classic wild west fable alive implies that maybe this de-visionist western had itself a proper vision after all. An idea that justifies its existence, one that invites all the new generations to find excitement and wonder in a genre that, too often, was all about exclusion.
Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s a damn fine wheel. It gets you where it’s going and it’s well worth getting there. It sure is a pleasant change of pace to see a western that gets away with simply being a western, without winking all of the time. It’s what the old folks used to call a straight shooter, and it delivers with a bang.
Thirteen Must-See Films at TIFF 2016:
Top Photo: Columbia Pictures
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.