In the golden age of American cinema, there were two absolute staples. The Musical and The Western. Somehow Musicals have managed to survive the changing tides, yet if there’s one genre of film that has certainly lost its luster, it is the Old West. Gone are the days of legend, in which John Wayne and John Ford could sell out a theater in a heartbeat, simply if their name was on a marquee. Tumbleweeds no longer roll across the plains and sunsets hold a distinct lack of horses. The Western isn’t completely dead yet and those that remain are trying their hardest to make a comeback.
The Magnificent Seven was released last weekend and is the best attempt to bring life to the genre in recent years. There have been some worthy efforts, such as the financially disastrous Lone Ranger, as well as the short-lived comedy A Million Ways to Die in the West, but both of these fizzled rather than sparked. In all honesty The Magnificent Seven is the best go we’ve had since 2011’s True Grit. You could make an argument for Django Unchained or The Hateful Eight, but in both cases we are given Tarantino’s western, rather than a traditional formulaic film. Django Unchained, while a phenomenal film, is the equivalent of Clint Eastwood’s westerns back in his heyday. While both situations churned out marvelous products, they were more of visions of the director rather than constructions of the genre itself.
The Magnificent Seven on the other hand, is certainly a film birthed from the genre, rather than the director’s mind. Don’t misunderstand, Antoine Fuqua definitely directs the film with a proficient eye and a decidedly classic approach to action scenes, it is a western through and through, complete with gunfire duels, horseback rides and dusty deserted boom towns. At no point during the movie do you feel like you’re watching a product of the 2010’s, as everything is completely faithful to the spirit of the olden days. Rightfully so, as The Magnificent Seven is of course a remake of a film of the same name which was released in 1960. If you’re not familiar with the story, I guarantee you’ve seen it before, as even the original is itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. It’s a story that’s been told a thousand times, there’s a bully terrorizing an innocent town, so they journey off to recruit a group of renegades to return and fight them off against all odds. If you’ve seen A Bug’s Life, you know the story of Magnificent Seven. But with such a played-out story, does it manage to be entertaining, even if you’ve seen it time and time again?
Absolutely. If there’s one word to describe 2016’s The Magnificent Seven, it would be “entertaining.” From the moment we are introduced to Denzel Washington, this movie is a fun thrill ride that never ceases to keep you engaged. Denzel is classic Denzel, delivering lines and firing guns in that cool-guy way that only he can pull off. Chris Pratt is once again just delightfully magnanimous and suave in such a way that forms a miraculous charisma. If you share my opinions and found him to have been bland in 2015’s reluctant Jurassic World, rest assured he’s closer to his standout Guardians of the Galaxy performance, while still delivering something fresh. But while these two actors are always engaging on screen, my favorite part of the film was the bit players. Vincent D’Onofrio plays an old trader who’s really just happy to be there, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as the Mexican who’s quick to anger, Ethan Hawke is a veteran sharpshooter who is haunted by his past, but my two favorites in the movie are Martin Sensmeister as the Comanche Warrior armed with a bow, and Byung-Hung Lee as a mysterious knife-wielding marvel. While all of these characters are completely engaging and play off each other with a funny rapport, you never really get in depth with their motivations and backstories. Nor does the film ever cross that threshold from fun and exciting to engaging and densely-structured. But that’s okay right? Westerns are really only meant to be some dumb fun and don’t need to be anything more, right? Right. But is that enough these days?
While they existed for the majority of the twentieth century, westerns really had their heyday during the 1930’s and 40’s. Gee, I wonder why. While the country was going through it’s darkest days, there was nothing we needed more than some good-natured gunplay and cheesy dialogue. During the 40’s, you could mention the name John Wayne anywhere in the world, and people would instantly react in a positive manner. John Wayne essentially was America, as far as the rest of the world was concerned. Westerns and Musicals were a manner of escapism that the American people needed to connect with. They always followed the same basic structure and guaranteed a stress-free time at the movies. This is a trend that has existed throughout cinematic history. Cinema goes through phases, but each time we are gifted with some genre of film that’s essentially guaranteed to be a fun night out. In the nineties, it was bloated action movies, today, it’s super heroes, no matter what we find our solace in something, however westerns just don’t seem to cut it anymore. While The Magnificent Seven was entertaining, when Denzel Washington walks into a saloon to cause the piano-player to stop playing, you can’t help but think to yourself, “eh, I’ve seen it.” So am I suggesting that westerns need to cease to be fun and instead take a more serious tone? Absolutely not. While it’s been done before to some success (Unforgiven by Clint Eastwood), at it’s very core, the western is one of simple fun and excitement. It’s just getting over the feeling of repetition that studios need to break in order to find success. When my grandparents say that westerns were better back in the day, they’re right. That’s because westerns belong back in the day. They just don’t work the way they used to. And that’s okay. Not everything that was at some point successful will work anymore. You don’t see people making Chaplin-style silent films anymore do you? I’m not saying stop making westerns. I’m just saying that unless they find a way to radicalize the genre-a herculean task to be sure-westerns will never be the same.
The Magnificent Seven: B+
Image: The gang rides into town in MGM’s The Magnificent Seven