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‘The Magnificent Seven’: How Denzel Washington’s Explosive Pop Western Defies America’s Racist Past

Director Antoine Fuqua’s flashy reimagining of a classic Western trumps the ugliness of American racism like only a big-budget blockbuster can.

09.08.16 7:45 PM ET

In many ways The Magnificent Seven, as remade by the director of Training Day, King Arthur, and Olympus Has Fallen, is exactly what you might expect: A PG-13 popcorn Western filled with big action, blurry morals, quipping misfit heroes, and all the studio blockbuster bombast a $100 million-plus budget can buy. The twist is that our merry band of antiheroes are led by Oscar-winner Denzel Washington, and in casting an ethnically diverse rogues’ gallery along with him, Antoine Fuqua adds an entertainingly flashy entry to a budding subgenre: the post-racial Western.

This retelling hinges on a familiar plot: Seven ragtag gunslingers rally to help a town fend off a murderous robber baron, putting their selfish lives on the line for the greater good. But Fuqua also puts his intentions front and center by opening on Washington’s slow horsebound amble into a new town, staring down the glares of white denizens who don’t bother hiding their disdain, disbelief, and open hostility for the black cowboy standing before them.

It’s Cleavon Little’s mosey into Rock Ridge in Blazing Saddles, only told with a straight face and with some horrendously clichéd saloon dialogue. But the clunky deliberateness underscores Fuqua’s goal: To trump the ugliness of America’s historical racism with the progressivism of hindsight, like only a multiplex blockbuster can. The white folks in these towns might fear and hate Washington’s Sam Chisolm, but they soon enough will learn how much they need him.

It’s really no use comparing The Magnificent Seven to John Sturges’ star-studded 1960 original or that film’s predecessor, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Like any modern revisionist retelling, Fuqua’s multicultural actioner is a product of its time – a fact that audiences will have to take or leave as The Magnificent Seven roars out of the gate striking an odd balance of reverent facsimile and winking postmodernism.

Sam Chisolm is as serious and principled as his second-billed squadmate Josh Farraday (Chris Pratt) is smooth and rascally. Chisolm meets-cute with the ruggedly handsome gambler before recruiting him on a suicide mission to save the mining town of Rose Creek from Bartholomew Bogue (an oily Peter Sarsgaard). They’ve been promised a rich reward by a spunky young lady named Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), who wants justice for the extortionist slaying of her husband (Matt Bomer, the most beautiful farmer to live in the Old West) at the hands of Bogue and his men.

A little Pratt goes a long way as comic relief, as he’s proven over the course of his last many blockbuster outings. The rest of the titular seven don’t get as much screen time, but each make an impression in their own way: Ethan Hawke as an old wartime buddy of Chisolm’s called Goodnight Robicheau, a screenwriter’s dream of a name; his hetero Asian life-partner Billy Rocks (Korean superstar Byung-hun Lee), a knife-throwing assassin; Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Vasquez, a Mexican criminal trading his service for freedom; Vincent D’Onofrio as a burly tracker with a few screws loose who steals every scene talking in a high pitched whimper; and Martin Sensemeier as a young Comanche warrior who joins the gang just ‘cause, and seals his improbably speedy recruitment by snacking on the raw heart of a deer.

Fuqua grew up on the classic Westerns before building a career with movies about men of loose morals seeking redemption with their fists, their guns, and their sheer willingness to do questionable things. The last time he directed his muse, he made Denzel a badass in a button-down and turned a Home Depot into a bloody battlefield. Here he envisions him as a stoic bounty hunter in black cruising the territories for bad men, haunted by a past marred by loss, and Washington carries that quiet pain with a captivating dignity.

But Fuqua loses his handle on the sprawling ensemble as the plot moves toward its predictable conclusion, speeding through the motions: Getting the gang together, training the helpless townsfolk, preparing for a final standoff against Bogue and his army of hired guns that not everyone will survive. There’s so much movie to get through the script only bothers with broad strokes: The good, the bad, and the gray areas in between. Sarsgaard’s evil Bogue, for example, literally vocalizes what he stands for in his first scene as he proclaims that gold matters, people don’t, and capitalism is God. 

While it has no time for nuance and seems to leave several character relationships on the editing room floor, Magnificent Seven at least celebrates the kind of vigilante hero we love to love. When the locals distraught over Bogue’s murderous ways wail, “Who’s gonna stand up to a man like that?” the answer is, these guys: Predators roaming the West in the guise of average Joes, who could only ever serve a duty to society when society calls upon them to kill monsters more evil than them. 

(l to r) Byung-hun Lee, Ethan Hawke, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Vincent D'Onofrio and Martin Sensmeier star in The Magnificent Seven.

Sam Emerson

And yet Magnificent Seven is exquisitely attentive in surprising ways, like when Chisolm and Farraday split up to recruit the rest of their makeshift gang and agree to meet up again in three days’ time. Marvel at the slowness of time itself in such bygone eras compared to the lightning-fast anxieties we feel nowadays just from sending a text and not getting an immediate reply back. Laugh along with Lee’s manbun-sporting Billy, who doesn’t quite seem to know how he got there, either, but has found happiness hustling white guys who underestimate him in quickdraw brawls.

At least Fuqua revels in orchestrating pulse-quickening shoot-outs and stunning horse stunts that make The Magnificent Seven fly. James Horner’s score blares big brassy horns to match the big, bombastic action. The Magnificent Seven is all plot and clever set piece, but forgets that you need to give the audience reasons to care about the fates that befall these characters as it leads up to its final siege, when industrialist Bogue and his army of evil cops descend upon the booby-trapped town for one last bloodbath.

The winks, and there are plenty of them, come when Magnificent Seven embraces its truest destiny as a bromantic pop Western. At its best it’s Fast & Furious on horses, The Wild Bunch for people who will never bother to see The Wild Bunch – big, boisterous, mostly intentionally unserious. If they can resist comparing Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven to the classic Westerns that have come before, diehard fans of the genre might even appreciate how it tries to replicate those tried and true formulas for a generation that craves a dose of self-awareness along with the good, the bad, and the ugly.