It’s probably time to start recalibrating our expectations for reboots, remakes, or whatever terminology you prefer. We mistakenly assume that filmmakers will find a new twist on the material, that they have a reason for spending millions of dollars and hundreds of hours of manpower making these films. But of course, there is only one reason: name recognition. Blair Witch took the formal inventiveness of the first film but didn’t seem to care what it did with it: Let’s make a movie that uses the name but has nothing to add. Whaddya gonna do? You might think remakes are here to justify their existence but, in fact, their existence is justified merely by existing.
I’m going to stop being surprised when a remake is as listless, rote, and dull as The Magnificent Seven. The 1960 film was itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samarai, but with a clever twist: It transposed that film’s sense of honor among thieves to the American West, to great effect. But this Magnificent Seven barely has the energy to build new sets. It’s just another Western, and a bewilderingly lethargic one at that. The film is less a callback to an olden age of Westerns as it a game of dress up, on a straight-from-central-casting set that feels more Back to the Future III than The Searchers. You keep expecting the film to play with all the hoary Western clichés it trots out, to find some way to modernize them. Instead, it just trots them out.
Denzel Washington has the Yul Brynner role, playing Sam Chisholm, a hired gun who has seen it all and knows all the angles. After the town of Rose Creek is pillaged and burned by an evil land baron (Peter Sarsgaard), the defiant townsfolk, led by a grieving widow (Haley Bennett), hire Chisholm to pull together a gang of misfits to fight against the baron’s army. Granted, it’s a much more multicultural crew than the original seven—the film’s one real updating nod—but it’s worth noting that the only three that make much of a presence are all Western white-guy heroes: An old Confederate soldier suffering from what we’d now call PTSD (Ethan Hawke), a Bible verse-spouting hatchet expert (Vincent D’Onofrio) and the rebellious, gambling, smoldering, sarcastic antihero with a heart of gold (Chris Pratt). The group gets together, bonds, rides some horses, bonds some more, trains the townsfolk for the big battle, and then fights like hell. It is like every Western you have ever seen, and rarely deviates.
It’s disappointing how little energy everybody brings to the proceedings. Sarsgaard, a fantastic actor, is a surprisingly weak villain, though to be fair, he’s only in two scenes in the movie. Hawke’s increasingly ragged and weathered presence has served him well—he’s the rare actor who can look both experienced and scared—but there isn’t a movie he makes that isn’t strictly dictated by his storyline. Pratt seems to be auditioning for an as-yet-unmade Han Solo on the frontier remake, and while he does fine, putting him in these confident manly-man roles is playing against his strengths. (He does at least get a good send-off.) But the real bummer here is Washington. Even in some of his sillier roles, he always brings a sense of humanity and vitality, but here his attempt at laconic heroism mostly just comes across as sleepy.
You’d wonder why he bothered—but who didn’t initially get excited about the idea of Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt leading a Magnificent Seven remake? I wasn’t crazy about Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight but that movie is a boundless ball of energy compared to this one. Director Antoine Fuqua, who did done fine work with Washington in the past (Training Day, The Equalizer), seems to have little natural affinity for the Western, but barely even much affection for it. He goes through the motions at every turn: Even the saloon fronts look like you could knock them over if you bumped into them too hard. The Magnificent Seven is a cast and a title in search of a movie. Not only did they not find one, I’m not certain they even looked.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site Listen to their below.