Westerns haven't tried to simply be fun in years. Too preoccupied with dark history and making amends, what John Ford would call rebranding the legend. That almost isn't the case with The Magnificent Seven.
Director Antoine Fuqua's reboot of the 1960 western classic is what used to be termed a rip-snorter, a rambunctious movie with no agenda other than thrilling audiences. The Magnificent Seven had me smiling throughout, tapping into Saturday matinee memories without seeming entirely old-fashioned.
Although not a direct remake, Fuqua's movie two-steps with the past, presenting new characters with glimmers of the old. Squint and you can spot Steve McQueen in Chris Pratt; a staredown between Denzel Washington and Yul Brynner might be called on account of darkness. The late James Horner's final musical compositions pay subtle rhythmic tribute to Elmer Bernstein's iconic score.
By the time Bernstein's frontier anthem gets pulled out like a trusty rifle from its scabbard, Fuqua's movie has earned the right to play it.
Washington looks born into the saddle as Sam Chisolm, quickly established as a bad hombre with a Django-style bounty hunt. A few miles away, a mining town is having a Rock Ridge moment, with bad guys riding into town, a-whompin' and a-stompin,' led by robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, nicely hissable).
One casualty is the husband of plucky frontier woman Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), who offers Sam everyone's life savings to rid the town of Bogue and his hundreds of heavily armed desperadoes. Seven men should be enough. Sam sets out to find them.
First onboard is gambling gunslinger Josh Faraday, and if any doubt of Pratt's star quality remained, this portrayal of bravado undercut with mischief erases it. Josh's rascally ways nicely contrast with Sam's steely demeanor. Washington and Pratt hit the right notes of their characters rubbing off on each other, bonding between bullet sprays.
It should be noted that The Magnificent Seven is more like a very cool two and a half, counting Ethan Hawke's wonderfully named Goodnight Robicheaux, a former Confederate marksman whose PTSD is a brief drag on the action. The rest are either well-sketched outsiders (Vincent D'Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee) or killing machines (Martin Sensmeier, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). Emma lends a trigger finger when needed.
Fuqua and director of photography Mauro Fiore respect the genre's wide open spaces, after their previous urban collaborations in Training Day and The Equalizer (each starring Washington). One briefly wonders if Derek Hill's production design of the town intentionally looks a bit cheesy, in homage to past horse operas. No, it just looks too new to be convincing, until scuffed up with a Gatling gun.
The Magnificent Seven gets past such issues with cinema's most basic appeal: This movie has enormous personality, expressed by the fun obviously shared by actors playing cowboys, Indians and rich white villain. Some legends deserve their rebranding.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.