Movie Review: The Magnificent Seven (2016)
The point of the Magnificent Seven, and the Seven Samurai before them—you might even say the beauty of these guys—is that they do the deed for the deed. They may have qualms about it, they may not always be the best men, and the villagers they protect aren’t exactly pure; but it’s still a noble, selfless act amid a (for them) pyrrhic victory.
The 2016 update of “The Magnificent Seven” by Antoine Fuqua changes a few things—names, locale, victims, the ethnic makeup of the Seven—but the biggest and most uncommented-upon change is the motivation of team leader Chisolm (Denzel Washington), which isn’t revealed until the final act.
Turns out the villain they’re fighting? The rich, 19th-century industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, overacting by underacting), who rules the mining town of Rose Creek with a sadistic, powerful, and blasé finger? Chisolm knows him! In fact, ol’ Bartholomew killed Chisolm’s wife and kids way back when. He tried to kill Chisolm, too (cue: neck scar reveal) but our man didn’t die. Or maybe, a la certain Clint Eastwood heroes, he’s a vengeful ghost or something.
The point is, Chisolm doesn’t do the deed for the deed, as Chris and Shimada did before him. He does it for revenge. For him, it’s personal.
This changes everything about the story. Worse, he doesn’t even tell any of the rest of the Seven that he's got skin in the game. He gathers them, and gets them to do the deed for the deed, even as he’s doing it for the most personal reasons possible. He lies, essentially. Our hero lies.
I gotta ask: Who on the filmmaking team thought this was a good idea? Fuqua? Screenwriters Richard Wenk (“The Expendables 2”) or Nic Pizzolatto (HBO's “True Detective”)? Denzel? Some suit? Has anyone accepted credit? Or blame?
Chisolm’s motivation also allows for one of the worst tropes in modern action movies: the slow, sadistic death of the villain. For decades now we’ve gone Old Testament; we want our eye for an eye. We want the villain to suffer as he made others suffer. “I seek righteousness, but I’ll take revenge,” says Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett, forever spilling cleavage). That’s us. We want to be both moral and sadistic. We get it here. Slower. Slower. Make it last. We’re sick puppies.
Overall, Denzel is in fine form, the final battle is surprisingly well-orchestrated and well-told, and it’s always nice to see Vincent D’Onofrio. But most of the Seven aren’t interesting. Fuqua gives them race (the Mexican, the Native American, the Asian guy) but no personality. Personality is still for the white dudes (Pratt, Hawke, D'Onofrio).
Most importantly, Chisolm's motivation fucks up the most beautiful part of the story.