John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven occupies a unique space within the international back-and-forth of moviemaking. Although the 1960 version walks and talks like the kind of classically rousing, Cinemascope epics that MGM cranked out in the Eisenhower era, it was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai—itself deeply indebted to Hollywood Westerns. A year after The Magnificent Seven was released, Kurosawa made Yojimbo, which Italian maestro Sergio Leone remade as A Fistful of Dollars, which itself kicked off the Spaghetti Western trend. The best phrase I’ve heard to describe the whole thing is a “feedback loop.”
That feedback reverberates in everything from The Dirty Dozen to Ocean’s Eleven to The Hateful Eight, and the impact of Kurosawa’s contribution—the ragtag-ensemble setup, the final-battle plotting, even the use of slow-motion to capture conflict—is inestimable. (Even something like Ghostbusers fits the bill.) 1960’s Magnificent Seven is mostly notable for introducing a handful of major movie stars and Elmer Bernstein’s iconic score; Seven Samurai is the echt big-budget action movie.
It’s unfortunate, then, that 2016’s Magnificent Seven retains more from the remake than the real deal. Whole scenes replay nearly verbatim, and they still feel built from spare parts. Working with a screenplay by Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk, director Antoine Fuqua takes his visual cues from dingy revisionist Westerns and the old-timey-carnival aesthetic of Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, but he replaces those movies’ sense of humor with a fist-pumping machismo. A slick, smug cruelty pervades this Magnificent Seven, and it wears thin long before the geographically botched finale—a grand showdown that none of the seven heroes is guaranteed to survive.
That sequence is arguably regarded as Seven Samurai’s most visceral achievement. But beneath the furious momentum, Kurosawa’s movie is a populist fable about class conflict. Produced in the wake of the blacklist, Hollywood’s first version injected a streak of Kennedy-era liberalism into its Mexican village’s guerrilla uprising. In the wake of the Vietnam War, the original Magnificent Seven has an unfortunate odor of well-intentioned interventionism. Its mostly white and American gunslingers train the villagers to fight, but they still fit the white savior narrative.
Fuqua and his writers attempt to skirt the issue by ostensibly removing the politics: their oppressed mining town (surrounded by inexplicably shifting terrain) is ruled by a generic, mustache-twirling robber baron (Peter Sarsgaard, mugging and pirouetting and the only one who seems to be having any fun). Still, their seven are a Benetton ad in chaps, and the cast has had to vehemently deny that the nod toward diversity is any kind of statement. In light of the movie’s constant racial chatter—camaraderie is earned through tribal ribbing—that sounds like a copout. Even worse, the colorblindness masks an intermittent, retrograde exoticism. (One scene in particular goes out of its way to bestialize a Native American ritual.) That all may be part of the movie’s grotesque design; but in its attempt to depoliticize the material, The Magnificent Seven trades one kind well-intentioned goof for another and ends up offering postures in lieu of politics.
In a way, that’s to be expected in the age of globalization. Fifty years after Kurosawa’s original, that back-and-forth exchange has codified into a monolithic din. There’s no reason to be pessimistic; the exchange will continue. But at this point in the conversation, the feedback is a noisy drag.
The Magnificent Seven. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Written by Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk. Starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, and Ethan Hawke. Opens in Kansas City September 23, 2016.