A funny thing happens when a movie is remade more than once: It starts to take on the qualities of a myth.
Take, for example, “Seven Samurai,” Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 epic that is one of the handful of movies that you could refer to, sans irony, as the greatest movie ever made. Bits and pieces of this spotless epic have been recycled all over the place — any movie wherein a team is assembled before a mission, for example, which includes most every contemporary superhero team or heist movie.
It was remade first in 1960 as “The Magnificent Seven,” which featured one of the greatest themes of all time and spawned a mess of who-cares sequels. And then there’s exploitation king Roger Corman’s Star Wars-inflected “Battle Beyond the Stars,” which features Sybil Danning looking like a half-naked space Viking-witch and spawned lots of giggling.
So one doesn’t get offended on Kurosawa’s behalf at Antoine “Training Day” Fuqua’s “The Magnificent Seven,” what with this ground being incredibly well trod. Indeed, if one goes in to this newest film expecting an over-long, reasonably entertaining shoot-’em-up starring a few big names … well, you get that.
But that is it. That’s the sum total. In fact, the word that best describes this outing is “cromulent,” a neologism coined in a “Simpsons” episode in a joke about meaningless words. Among the endless-pop-culture-reference classes, it has come to mean something acceptable and real, but in no way superlative.
Boy, oh boy, is “The Magnificent Seven” one cromulent picture.
Nic “True Detective” Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk’s script keeps the originals’ bare bones and tricks it out for the superteam age. Black-clad bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington, possibly having the time of his life), is hired by extremely recent widow Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) to wreak some sort of havoc on one Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, playing a man of pure moustache-twirl).
Bogue wants the town of Rose Creek emptied of residents and mined till it’s empty. Chisolm takes the gig, moved by the townsfolks’ offer of “all they have.”
Chisolm heads off to put the band together, returning to town with:
- Card-shark trickster Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt, per usual the most charming screen presence)
- Guilt-ridden Confederate sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke, with the coolest name)
- Robicheaux’s business partner, knife-thrower Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee)
- “Texican” cowboy Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo),
- Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier)
- Lunatic, bear-skinned hunter Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio, sporting a truly bizarre voice)
Over and over, there are places that Fuqua could have made these relationships more interesting. What if Rocks and Robicheaux were a romantic couple? What if Vasquez and Faraday actually got into it over Faraday’s Mexican cracks? What if Horne turned out to be a cannibal? Something, please!
But no, this pretty well sticks to the “Seven” framework. They return to the town, trade quips now and then and try to train the townsfolk to defend themselves. Bogue eventually returns with both an army and the 19th century version of a doomsday weapon.
The hail-of-bullets action sequences are a blast, but the energy everywhere else feels too often forced and self-conscious. Everyone seems a little too aware that they are Making A Western For A Modern Audience rather than throwing themselves headfirst into making a Western for a modern audience. (Check out “Deadwood” for how to do this really well.)
Just throw on “Seven Samurai” if you want the real thing. Or perhaps it’s time for a more loose-limbed crack at the myth. What is Ms. Danning up to?
‘THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN’
Starring: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke
Rating: PG-13 for extended and intense sequences of Western violence, and for historical smoking, some language and suggestive material
Running time: 2 hours, 12 min
Theaters: Alamo Lakeline, Alamo Ritz, Alamo Slaughter, Alamo Village, Barton Creek, Cedar Park, City Lights, Evo, Flix Brewhouse, Galaxy, Gateway, Hill Country, Lakeline, Metropolitan, Moviehouse & Eatery, Round Rock, Southpark, Stone Hill, Tinseltown, Westgate. IMAX: Barton Creek, Gateway.