Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Saturday, January 19, 2019

Antoine Fuqua’s Take on a Western Classic Falls Short of Surpassing Its Contemporaries

“Somehow I don’t think you’ve solved my problem,” is a line said by the villain, Calvera (Eli Wallach) in the 1960’s version of the western film The Magnificent Seven, and something that rings true for much of director Antoine Fuqua’s remake. This version of the film stars Ethan Hawke, Chris Pratt and Denzel Washington as guns for hire who promise to defend their town from Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), a man whose greed has crippled a small town out in the desert during the late 19th century.

Washington, who has a particularly nasty bone to pick with Bogue (get it, rogue), serves as a quite literal grim reaper, decked out in all black and wielding a silver pistol that deals swift justice. Washington doesn’t miss a beat and is totally likeable and fun to root for as the bounty hunter character, sworn to avenge his dead family. While Washington’s performance is agreeable, peppered with audience-pleasing one liners and heroic action shots, the character who grabs the most attention is Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt). 

Pratt portrays the card playing trickster ladies man who can’t say no to drink and apparently can’t maintain a convincing southern accent. For the first half of the film, it felt like the writers were beating a dead horse (dead horses are, unsurprisingly, a motif in this western film) trying to make the audience laugh at every single thing Faraday says. While most of the lines are funny, some do fall flat and at some point it begins to blur the lines between comedy and western shooter.

Like the original, from the very start of the movie the audience (and the characters) know there is going to be a final showdown between Bogue’s men, the remaining townspeople and the seven men that form an ethnically diverse, ragtag team of skilled fighters. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this setup (in the context of the genre), it largely limits the story that director Fuqua can tell. One key place where he deviates from the original story is  mostly the second half inclusion of the idea that all the killings that are going to take place and all the death that these men have seen, does take a toll. This subplot doesn’t feel shoehorned in, and it rides nicely on the back of Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), a former Confederate soldier who seems to be suffering from the mental scars of war causing him to second guess his ability to be a reliable combatant. 

The other four men are largely reduced to caricatures and stereotypes. A Native American bowman who seeks vengeance on the white Bouge, an Asian fighter who specializes in hand-to-hand combat and a Mexican outlaw who is the butt of many of Faraday's racist remarks. While there isn’t enough time to delve into the backstory of any of the minor characters, having them reduced to cliches isn’t satisfying, regardless of the time and place of the movie. The lone woman in the movie, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), is also given almost nothing to do for much of the movie, with her one action star moment being at the end. Cullen enacts a much foreshadowed revenge on the man who wronged her, which is a crowd pleaser, but without the any real attachment to the character the moment falls a little flat. The movie suffers from the all too predictable cliche of having a female role fade into the background in an action movie, despite the fact that her character is admirable, highly motivated and a crack shot.

The final battle was stylish, sleek and well-orchestrated chaos that provided audiences with what they were waiting for and more. The inclusion of the gatling gun, explosives and an endless litany of quick-cuts and lense flares, provided by cinematographer Mauro Fiore who doesn’t use as many daring shots as some of his contemporaries in the genre, Emmanuel Lubezki (The Revenant) and and Robert Richardson (Django Unchained), kept the action fast, but followable. Some of the gorgeous set pieces could have been taken from Lord of the Rings, and the excellent sound design made it so each bullet sounded like it hit its target or got really close to hitting you.

Ultimately, the movie never makes a particularly strong case for why it came to be, but does exude some of the same charm that the original did. Washington and Pratt are not as convincing as the leads in the remake of True Grit or Cowboys and Aliens, but now and again they remind you why they are Hollywood megastars with some truly witty lines, charming smiles and a physicality, especially on Pratt, that is near unrivaled. Maybe Pratt isn’t the most convincing cowboy, but he’s always got a trick up his sleeve.

Grade: C(for cowboys)+

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