What makes a movie a classic? It’s an odd, intangible thing, this idea that some movies are destined for eternal greatness, to be revered above others. Some of them are obvious - huge, sweeping epics that are so bold and ambitious that the label of “classic” seems inevitable. Some of them, it’s the uniqueness, something wholly original and fascinating, done so well that its inimitability makes it a classic. But others, it’s harder to gauge. In 1960, the John Sturges-directed The Magnificent Seven was released, starring a murderer’s row of actors — Yul Brenner, Eli Wallach, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and a few others. It itself is a remake of Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, and with all of those pedigrees, it clearly had the makings of a classic. And indeed, it became one, and has become my favorite western and one of my favorite movies of all time. Given that it’s a remake, I could hardly be upset when Anton Fuqua decided to remake it yet again, retaining the Western setting but changing the story around a good bit.
Which brings us to the 2016 version, a curious, often conflicted Western shoot-em-up that certainly does enough differently to give it its own stamp, but doesn’t do quite enough with its certainly very interesting cast to make them anywhere close to iconic. This time, instead of a Mexican village being raided by bandits, it’s a Western farming town called Rose Creek, taken over by Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), a cruel robber baron who wants to mine the town’s gold while mercilessly ruling over them like slaves. Emma Cullen, whose husband was slain by Bogue’s thugs, travels to find the solemn and deadly Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington) and enlist him to come to the town’s defense.
From there, the plot heads into standard getting-the-gang-together, as Chisholm enlists the brash Farraday (Chris Pratt, playing Chris Pratt but doing so very well); Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), a Cajun rifleman who may have lost his nerve; a Chinese knife expert and friend of Robicheaux named Billy Rocks (Byung-Hun Lee); a burly and unusually gentle-souled woodsman (Vincent D’Onofrio); the Mexican gunslinger Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and Red Harvest, a Comanche warrior (Martin Sensmeier).
They all come together, they kill a bunch of bad guys, they teach the town to defend themselves as they prepare for more bad guys, and then there’s a big battle at the end.
Sure, there’s a few more elements peppered in there - Chisholm has a hidden agenda that isn’t that hidden, Robicheaux is dealing with his personal demons - but other than that, the story is fairly rote by Western actioner standards. That would have been OK, because Westerns have survived for decades by working within a relatively basic framework. It’s the characters and settings that make some of them special, as is the case with the original - there’s little innovative about Sturges’ story, but the cast was stellar and it was their interactions and personalities (and some particularly memorable dialogue) that made it so revered.
That’s ultimately where this year’s Magnificent Seven fails. To be sure, the gunfights are breathlessly exciting and intense, ranging from small skirmishes to one sprawling, chaotic battlefield. It’s well done and fun to watch, even if at times the tone gets a little grimmer than one expects from the film’s occasionally goofy humor. And while Pratt is clearly having a ball playing the drunken sidekick who can shoot the leaves off a branch, and Sarsgaard is twirling his mustache with an oft-hilarious vigor, the rest of the cast floats listlessly through the film. Denzel plays Denzel, and does so admirably enough, I suppose, but the rest aren’t given nearly enough to do. This is especially curious given the diversity of the film — if anything, the film’s diversity becomes its greatest detriment. Fuqua clearly is checking boxes when it came to the different parts of the Seven, and that’s perfectly fine with me — a little diversity in a Western is a welcome thing. But he makes no statement about it, creates no conflict, and generates no emotional resonance out of this unusual collective. No bones are made about a group of seven desperadoes led by a black man that also includes men of Chinese, Mexican, and Cajun descent. And if this were set in 2016, that’d be fine. But this is set in the 19th century, and such a sight would be a baffling and shocking turn of events.
But worse than that is that the non-white characters, other than Chisholm himself, are given little to do other than be the non-white characters. There’s no depth to them, no reason to be invested in them. Chisholm is a man with a dark history, a lengthy biography that is made clear early on, and a clear-cut personality. Hawke’s Robicheaux is the same, a Southern soldier seeking redemption and a close friend of Chisholm’s. Pratt is a simpler character, a gambler and drinker looking for something worth doing in his life. But the rest? Vasquez is basically just The Mexican, with little to do other than shoot well and be Mexican. Rocks is the same - he’s a companion of Robicheaux, but if you had to describe his character, you’d describe him as “Chinese, nice smile, good with knives” and not much more. And Red Harvest has an inexplicably, ridiculously fast exposition dump that brings him onto the team, and then after that he’s the Native American in war paint who shoots arrows, end of story.
This iteration of The Magnificent Seven isn’t a nonstop actioner, and so it’s up to the writing and the characters to fill up the moments in between gunfights with something to keep the film alive. That’s where the film falters. While the characters are fun enough to watch banter back and forth, there’s nothing behind them to give them any dramatic weight. That the nonwhite actors (Washington aside) bear the brunt of that emptiness makes it all the more disappointing, but no matter what the race, there’s no escaping the fact that Fuqua has done something that he’s made a career out of - created a flashy, entertaining, occasionally even fun film that invests far too little in its characters. At his best — Training Day, Southpaw, he can give you one terrific character to work with around a relatively clichéd picture. He’s got a middle ground — The Replacement Killers, for example — where he can make a really great B-movie. And then he has a series of empty disappointments. The Magnificent Seven, sadly, falls somewhere between those last two - far from a classic, but rather an enjoyable enough afternoon, but with a disappointing shallowness, full of unfulfilled ambition and empty promises.