Friday, September 23, 2016

Seven Up: THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN


Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven is a rare sight: the straightforward all-star Hollywood Western. That alone is almost enough to make it fun, as the film gets down to business fulfilling every basic core comfort its designation promises. That it is also a glossy high-budget big studio movie that’s slickly competent, highly efficient, uncomplicated, completely confident in its easy genre pleasures and totally solid in its narrative drive heightens the fun. This is an energetic, red-blooded action movie leaning hard into a Wild West fantasy of righteous violence, in which gunplay and good intentions are enough to win the day. Fuqua has made a career out of movies about violent men – Training Day, King Arthur, Shooter, Southpaw. Here, though, the violence is pure sensation above all else, satisfying and enjoyably expressive. Remaking John Sturges’ sturdy 1960 Western, itself inspired by Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, he tells a firm, old-fashioned oater in amped-up and appealing 2016 style.

The setup is familiar. A small frontier town is beset by an evil robber baron (Peter Sarsgaard, who all but twirls his mustache as the slimy villain). The narcissistic land-grabber is determined to run the townsfolk from the place, the better for him to expand his mine and get richer. He shoots some of them and burns their church to the ground, throwing in the insult-to-injury offer of $20 each if they skedaddle. Obviously this doesn’t sit well with the kindly townspeople, so a freshly widowed young woman (Haley Bennett) heads out to find the help they need to fight back. The first chunk of the movie is devoted to her search, introducing a grand total of seven men willing to lend a hand and a weapon to this noble cause. The next chunk involves the posse wrangling up a plan. Finally, there’s the big blowout gunfight as rounds of ammunition blast back and forth in creatively staged bouts of battle. There’s no surprise to the outline, but that’s to the film’s credit. The fun is in the reliable old narrative working again, and in the fine, unfussy character work that fills in the details.

It helps that the lead hero is Denzel Washington, as great a hero as we could hope for. Here he fits the wide-brimmed cowboy hat that shadows his tough-but-kind eyes in mystery. He sits in the saddle or struts down the dusty street with the complete and total moral and physical self-confidence with which he’s become synonymous. He plays a marshal roaming the west hunting bad guys. Of course he’s willing to help a nice little town defeat their wannabe corporate despot. (Co-writers Richard The Expendables 2 Wenk and Nic True Detective Pizzolatto’s chewy dialogue gives the villain a speech up top where he explicitly conflates profit with patriotism.) Of course he’s also driven by revenge, as we eventually learn his own sad reason to hate the man. But because he’s Denzel we have all the faith in the world that he’s on the side of truth and good, lassoing a diverse group of misfits into following his lead and rescuing this town from its looming doom.

In the extended, explosive and violent finale, Washington, seemingly without effort, slides off the saddle and hangs on the side, using the horse as cover while firing at baddies, then jumps back up and gets off another perfect shot as the horse rears back. I wanted to applaud. He’s that cool. The rest of his gang are an enjoyable bunch as well, and the movie’s smart not to load them down with intergroup conflict or subplots about grudges or romances. It’s lean, and straight to the point, allowing the invited actors to have fun with Western types while bringing the personality required of them. There’s Ethan Hawke as a doubting sharpshooter, Byung-hun Lee as an expert bladesman (styled like Lee Van Cleef), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as a Mexican bandit, Martin Sensmeier as a Native American archer, and best is Vincent D’Onofrio as a burly mountain man he plays with a funny, soulful high-pitched roughness. Bringing the total to seven is Chris Pratt in another of his slanted Harrison Ford impressions, bringing a sly grin and unexpected/expected dusting of goofiness to his quips. Within the first second they appear, we quickly know who they are, what they’re good at, and how the action will rely on them.

Though Fuqua amps up the speed, volume, and violence in his Magnificent Seven, stripping away all but the essential story beats and drawing the character’s distinctions quickly in broad strokes, he still knows how to provide what a Western needs to really get cooking. He lets the downtime breathe with an awareness of just how long it takes to gallop from one place to another. When Washington and crew stroll into town, after doing battle with crooked deputies (including Cam Gigandet), they tell the worried citizens they have a week to prepare – three days for the stooges to ride back to the boss, a day for them to plan, and three days for their army of deplorables to ride back armed to the teeth. Add to that the time spent putting their own group and plan together, and that leaves a lot of good quality time with the pistols, buttes, baked beans, campfires, church meetings, poker games, and swinging saloon doors that sell the genre setting between High Noon shootouts.

Fuqua knows the long setup earns a sharp and cleverly staged crescendo of action. My favorite bit, outside of Washington’s cool horse stunt, was a scowling baddie gunned down falling back into an empty open coffin outside the coroner’s. But Fuqua, with his frequent cinematographer Mauro Fiore, also makes the violence with some attention to horror. This won’t end with all seven standing, and the townspeople really are outgunned. Shots of terrified children huddled in a basement, or farmers nervously clutching rifles under cover as bullets rattle by, are welcome splashes of perspective in a movie that’s otherwise shooting for the iconic with cowboys astride faithful steeds silhouetted against the sunrise and dastardly villains squaring off against those whose purity of intention should win in the end. It’s this balance – Movie Stars and character actors; brilliant iconography and intimations of humanity – that make for a compelling, enjoyable, and satisfying entertainment beginning to end.

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