By Bill Wine
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Folks in a threatened small town in the Old West hire a motley crew of mercenary gunmen to protect them.
Of course that premise is familiar. It should be. It’s been done officially twice. And done well.
Which is why The Magnificent Seven has a lot to live up to.
This sprawling western remake is the third incarnation of material the original of which was Seven Samurai, an acknowledged 1954 masterwork by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa that starred Toshiro Mifune.
Six years later, director John Sturges gave us a loose American adaptation, an extraordinarily entertaining, indelibly iconic, and remarkably watchable adventure, titled The Magnificent Seven, starring Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen.
So a third version starts out playing with the big boys.
And while it may not erase the memories of its two illustrious predecessors, it comes impressively close and is thoroughly enjoyable.
For those of us who love and miss westerns, if TM7 the Second isn’t the next great western, it’ll do until that one comes along.
It comes from director Antoine Fuqua, is handsomely shot and smartly edited, and stars Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, and Ethan Hawke.
Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer, Olympus Has Fallen, Shooter, Southpaw) works from an adapted screenplay by Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto that departs from the original story in that it remains a tale of gunmen coming to the aid of intimidated and overwhelmed victims, but this time it’s to oppose a greedy industrialist in a small mining town called Rose Creek in 1879.
Washington, in his first western, has presence to spare as he stars as tough-but-not-talkative Sam Chisolm, a bounty hunter – okay, warrant officer — from Kansas who, alongside strong-and-talkative gambler Josh Faraday, played by wisecracking Chris Pratt, recruits a band of antiheroic gunmen to come to the aid of small-town settlers, their plight having been described in a plea for help by a young woman played by Haley Bennett, whose land is being bled dry by a sadistic, tyrannical mining tycoon, played by Peter Sarsgaard, who is forcing them to sell cheap.
The seven misfits that that will have to face the villain’s army in a David-versus-Goliath battle includes a sharp-shooting Confederate veteran (Ethan Hawke), a wild tracker (Vincent D’Onofrio), a Native American warrior (Martin Sensmeier), a Korean assassin (Byung-Hun Lee), and a Mexican outlaw (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo).
Fuqua tries to make up for the film’s lack of originality – pretty much inevitable in a second redo – with crisp execution. And he’s largely successful.
Like the first two versions, the film is characterized by a slow-build tension not only throughout the first half but in the second-half during preparation for the climactic battle, which is exhilarating enough for the audience to feel paid off.
The melting-pot cast is its own commentary on diversity and tolerance, laugh-worthy humor is surprisingly plentiful, and the ingratiating charisma and gritty charm that we have come to expect out of the source material is once again on display.
Gunplay is frequent, as it must be, but at least the film and its characters have room to breathe.
Of course, folks craving little more than wall-to-wall action and shoot-‘em-up glory will be gratified. But while depth and nuance are not particularly abundant, they’re not lacking either.
Which leaves us defending 3 stars out of 4. A bit short of magnificent but quite long on wondrous western wildness, the latest version of The Magnificent Seven is embraceable gunslinger escapism.