The Magnificent Seven doesn’t start with fanfare. No blaring horns to signal the American West, no soaring strings to complement the vast vistas before the camera, no cinematic shots of warring bandits cresting a hill, no legends and no heroes. Instead: ominous tones and close, shaky shots of a wagon delivering gold to a heavily watched bank. Cut to a church where a debate rages between the parishioners. Should they stay or should they go? Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) is coming to pay pennies on the dollar for their land — which he will strip-mine and pull every last ounce of gold out of before moving on to the next town. And then the next town. And so on and so forth until Bogue has the whole of California in his greedy mitts.
Speak of the devil. Bogue himself enters and takes over the proceedings, commanding the pulpit and delivering a speech about the intersection of the church and capitalism. Bogue blames all of America’s, and Americans’, problems on these two factors. He is a nasty man, one consumed by greed, but Bogue is no nastier than any other money hungry madman who sees no value in human life. In fact, as a villain, Bogue is positively bland, just another sniveling trust fund in search of a good quip. He never quite finds one, especially when he needs it, but that doesn’t stop him from pulling the trigger on Matthew Cullen (Matt Bomer), Emma’s husband, and setting the events of the movie in motion.
Emma (Haley Benett) and Matthew were tragically in the wrong place at the wrong time, but Emma miraculously manages to be at the right place at the right time when Chisolm (Denzel Washington) rides into a different frontier town and asserts himself. Chisolm is a court appointed warrant-man — a bounty hunter with a badge — and he is not to be taken lightly. Emma throws herself on his mercy, and Chisolm — for reasons of his own to be revealed at a later, more climatic moment — agrees to help protect her village from Bogue.
But Chisolm is one man, and Bogue will send hundreds. Good thing that Chisolm knows just the right guys, including a drunk who likes magic tricks, Josh Faraday (Christ Pratt); a decorated Rebel soldier, Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), who brings his Chinese manservant/buddy, Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), along; a grizzled prospector, Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio); a Mexican gunslinger, Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo); and, later, a Comanche warrior, Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). These seven have their work cut out for them as they have just one week to prepare the villagers and their plan before Bogue returns with his army of hired guns.
Even if The Magnificent Seven wasn’t a remake (The Magnificent Seven, dir. John Sturges, 1960) of a remake (The Seven Samurai, dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1954) it would still seem familiar. Even with a two-hour-plus run time, director Antonie Fuqua and screenwriters Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto can’t quite seem to dig into the psychology of their characters. Chisolm’s backstory is developed the most and Goodnight’s post-traumatic stress from the Civil War providing some insights, but the other five are either ignored completely — Horne, Rocks, Red Harvest — or merely alluded to in a manner that feels like much was left on the cutting room floor — Faraday and Vasquez. Save for two speeches, no time is spent with Bogue and even less is spent with the villagers. In lieu of personality and detail, The Magnificent Seven is broad strokes and storied archetypes.
Which considering the multi-cultural cast, this omission seems like a miss by a mile. As does the rest of the movie, which plays like a wannabe Tarantino post-modern pastiche toned down for a mass-audience. The audience never handcuffed Tarantino, and that helps, but not nearly as much as his passion for the form he is playing in. The Magnificent Seven is a Western in that guys are riding horses, wearing hats and sporting six-shooters, but the genre ends there. There is no sense of the melancholy that permeated the Westerns of Sam Peckinpah, or the operatic wonder that delighted Sergio Leone. There is no sense of the vast wilderness that John Ford found alluring, nor the male camaraderie that formed the core of Howard Hawks’s films. And there certainly isn’t anything cheap and reckless like some of the best B-Westerns. Instead, The Magnificent Seven is a safe, by-the-numbers remake of two classics designed to make money. Bogue may be the villain on the screen, but he’s the hero at the studio.