Monday, September 26, 2016

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

*** out of ****

I have no room to whine about this one: The 2016 The Magnificent Seven is a good remake of a movie I like, which was already a remake itself. When I was around twelve, my Dad rented the 1960 classic one night and it was an effective bonding experience. I remember it being one of those old movies that captivated my young and often short attention span. It helped that I had already heard Elmer Bernstein’s theme to the film on a soundtrack collection CD and thought it was such a fun piece that I needed to see the movie it was attached to.

I also remember that shortly after, my dad found Seven Samurai, the original Akira Kurosawa version of the movie at the video store and bringing it home one day. To my shame, I had no patience for it. It may have only been a year or two ago that I noticed it was among Hulu’s Criterion selections and I watched the 1954 Japanese masterpiece in awe of its… magnificence.

The story of oppressed people in a remote place seeking the help of skilled defenders has been told again and again. Even if the most famous American telling of this tale has been entered into the flawed system, which brought us an unnecessary Ghostbusters remake earlier this year, the results are simple but admirable. I had fun seeing this one.

I suppose the old west setting justifies the connection to the title, since this film, like many remakes, changes just about everything from the locations to the names of its characters. Instead of a Mexican village threatened by banditos, small American townsfolk are being forced off of their land by a snake of a mining baron (Peter Sarsgaard) who has bought-off local law enforcement, enabling him or any of his men to kill anyone who stands in their way.

After losing her husband to this monster, a young woman (Haley Bennett) sets out to find a righteous gunman who may be able to help the town find justice. When she encounters a bounty hunter (Denzel Washington) and offers everything the townsfolk have pooled, the competent fighter is motivated by their plight, especially when he learns the identity of their oppressor and knows they’re going to need more men.

From there, a good ol’ round-up act of the film dominates a fair portion of its running time. We meet a tricky wisecracking maverick (Chris Pratt), a Mexican outlaw (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), an ex-confederate sharpshooter (Ethan Hawke), his trusted knife expert companion (Byung-hun Lee), a burly mountain man (Vincent D’Onofrio) and a Comanche warrior (Martin Sensmeier). 

Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk’s screenplay is something of a far-fetched multi-cultural fantasy to impose in an old western setting, but it is fair to say that liberties have always been taken with this period genre to reflect values of the moment. It’s delightful to see a fictional story that brings together different varieties of Americans and director Antoine Fuqua delivers a charming caper with an epic gun battle finale that should entertain people normally resistant to westerns.

I must say that I was mostly surprised at the film’s production value. Despite how phony movies can look now due to the convenience of digital tools, the 2016 Magnificent Seven is incredibly pure in its look. Shot on 35mm film featuring wonderfully lit compositions by cinematographer Mauro Fiore, this film’s stunts, staging and editing made me feel right at home - with exception of the last two shots.

As a lover of film soundtracks who can’t get much satisfaction these days, it’s also nice to hear the final compositions of the late James Horner, who worked on this film leading up to his untimely death last year. The film’s music doesn’t aim for the joy of Bernstein’s score from the original - even if Chris Pratt’s performance does plenty to bring that spirit to the production. The original theme is subtly worked into the new music, which is more inspired by Ennio Morricone than Aaron Copland. Still, I wouldn’t have left the theater truly happy without hearing Bernstein’s music prominently played at some point. Thankfully, we get it at the end credits. Good as it is, the movie wouldn’t have worked without it being somewhere.

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