Remaking John Sturges' classic – a Western beloved by even those normally left saddle sore by the genre – might be considered sacrilege... except that the hallowed 1960 film is itself a remake. Sturges transposed Akira Kurosawa's 1954 masterpiece Seven Samurai from Japan to Mexico, replacing rōnin with sharpshooters now hired to protect a peasant village from rampaging bandits.
Not that such an argument would stretch far had director Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer) and writers Richard Wenk (The Equalizer) and Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) produced something deserving of a title like The Modest Seven. Fuqua would have got it with both barrels regardless of the true backstory – or, indeed, the fact Sturges' film, which birthed three sequels and a TV show, has already been reimagined as Battle Beyond The Stars (1980) and a Pixar animation A Bug's Life (1998).
Thankfully, this version is locked and loaded. Set in and around frontier town Rose Creek in 1879, it opens with Peter Saarsgard's (Jarhead) zeitgeisty industrialist Bartholomew Bogue making an aggressive offer for the residents' land. In a rush to get at the gold, he swears to be back in three weeks, and they had better be gone. What choice is there given Bogue has the sheriff paid off and a posse of itchy trigger fingered men in his employ?
There is one alternative – hire warrant officer Chisolm (Denzel Washington) to round up six more guns to defend the town. There is explosives expert and gunslinger Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Confederate sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), scalp hunter Jack Horne (Vincent D'Onofrio), assassin Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee) and Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). Once assembled, the renegade septet train the timid townsfolk in the art of war...
Washington is typically badass. Teaming with Fuqua for a third time, after Training Day (2001) and The Equalizer (2014), he plays, essentially, the part occupied by Yul Brynner in Sturges' movie and Takashi Shimura in Kurosawa's original – a daunting prospect, but no problem when you possess Washington's experience, authority and cache of cool. From the moment Washington rides in, backlit by the blazing sun and dressed all in black upon a midnight steed, he owns the film.
Chisolm's gang includes an Irishman, a Mexican, a Native American and a Korean as Fuqua both addresses Hollywood's diversity issue and reminds everyone that America was built upon immigrant spirit. Each character is fleshed out, morphing from mercenary to saviour, with the cast – like their forebears – being a pleasure to hang with.
Jawing aside, The Magnificent Seven thrills with its iconography and action. Sergio Leone style close-ups linger on narrowed eyes under low, wide brims; horses gallop across widescreen plains in clouds of dust; a rowdy saloon falls deafeningly silent upon the entrance of a stranger; low slung shots worship the seven walking in a line; a thrilling orchestral score features breakout horns, plucked banjo strings and hints of Elmer Bernstein's galvanising original music; and Red Harvest dons Stars and Stripes war paint.
"You speak Comanche?" Harvest asks Chisolm. "You speak white man's English?" comes the response. This is a western with political intent, though the brutal finale is open to interpretation – a celebration of the Second Amendment as townsfolk protect their homes, or an unblinking stare at the terrible violence that befalls the right to bear arms?
A startlingly barbarous set piece, this climactic shootout recalls Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) in the intensity of its violence. Don't be fooled by the 12A certificate. This hurts, with guns, knives, arrows, cannons, dynamite and machine guns ratcheting up an almighty kill count, while impact is maximised by having almost every corpse plummet off a rooftop. After a summer of mediocre blockbusters that elicited more than just collective apathy, it is a joy to feel once more.
Not quite magnificent but certainly Fuqua's best since Training Day and a rare remake that actually delivers.