The Magnificent Seven: Or, a Remake, of an Inspiration, of an Original.
By Mohammad Kamran Jawaid
As child of the 80’s, I doubt if the cinemas in Pakistan had shown a re-run of The Magnificent Seven (1960) in my time. The original, which officially acknowledges its inspiration from the far-superior Seven Samurai (1954) by master Akira Kurosawa, was an adequate time-filler that had a lot going for it. The chief of these was a spectacular score by Elmer Bernstein – whose bits one can pick up in the remake by Antoine Fuqua.
Mr. Bernstein’s score, as robust and happy-go-lucky as it is, ill-fits the dramatic temperament of a few scenes – whether by design or not (I think not), it helps create an ambiance of a less-serious enterprise at hand. In that version, a man clad in stylish black (Chris Adams, played by a cool Yul Brynner), whose past and present are indicated with a gesture of his thumb, gathers a group of emotionally worn-out good-guys with split-second on-target trigger-fingers to save a worn-out town across the American border threatened by a desperate villain (Eli Wallach’s Calvera). Calvera is meek by Bollywood standards – mainly because we’ve seen much more over-the-top villainy from Gabbar and Jageera (the former is of Sholay, a title that’s more or less a muddle of Spaghetti Western ideas; the latter, directed by Rajkumar Santoshi, humbly accepts Kurosawa’s roots). Calvera’s men are low on rations, and at moments, his roughness feels like an act of despairing survival.
In Fuqua’s version, Calvera is shuffled off, as are the main characters – gone is the shoe-horned racially-diverse love-story, and the all-white cast. In its stead, (and Mr. Brynner’s shoes), is Danzel Washington as the warrant officer Sam Chisolm, who is hired by Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), a recent widow, who, in her own words, seeks righteousness but will settle for revenge.
The screenplay by Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk deliberately changes a lot with good reason: the slack from the 1960’s version is replaced by a paced-up collection of scenes with an aim to please international audiences. The seven Chisolm hires are diverse – a Chinese (actor Byung-Hun Lee is actually South Korean), a Native American and an African-American – but without plausible or long-winded backstories.
Actually, to put things into perspective, the 1960’s version didn’t really indulge in over-explanation either: Mr. Brynner and co-lead Steve McQueen’s characters just happened to be good guys, and all it took for the audience to realize the depth of the genuineness, was an act of humane decency. No questions asked, no explanations given or pondered over. Mr. Fuqua’s Seven offer slight-insights, especially one very late in the film on Mr. Washington, injecting revenge as the film’s motive. The notion of grounding him works, because we’re now accustomed to reasons – even for being a good guy. #SimplerTimesNoMore, yes.
Mr. Washington’s group includes Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Martin Sensmeier – each nibbling (in Mr. Pratt’s and Mr. Hawke’s cases gnawing) bits and pieces off from Mr. Washington’s scenes. Regardless of the acting potential at hand, the two-hour running time – which gives a lot of leeway to eye-catching anamorphic-lensed establishing shots of sunsets and townscapes by cinematographer Mauro Fiore (a regular of Mr. Fuqua) – we are never quite connected to the cast. Then again, with the slight exception to Mr. Brynner and Mr. McQueen, this may be either a nod to the original or a by-chance recurrence. (Replacing the duo, though not their chemistry, this time are Mr. Washington and Mr. Pratt – the former, really fit; the latter should watch his weight).
Mr. Fuqua’s Seven cuts quick and fast between many different angles; his style – although with too many camera placements for my personal taste – seems to, now, come naturally. And unlike others, Mr. Fuqua doesn’t rely on cheap-theatrics of formulaic blockbusters. His last remake, The Equilizer, also with Mr. Washington and Ms. Bennett, was a smartly stridden action film that gave breathing space to Mr. Washington’s character, and some room for literal ambiances. There is less room here for experimentation, because Westerns, like most aspects and genres from the 60’s and the 70’s, is an endangered species. With rare-exceptions (The Hateful Eight, Django Unchained and True Grit (2010) and Open Range), the genre is susceptible to be unoriginal and over-blown.
Mr. Fuqua’s film mixes things up for the sake of today’s audience, adding a bigger (and far better) climax and a string of “safe” sequences, revving itself up, without the support of a memorable background score. It is, perhaps, as entertaining, as the original, in a different vein.