The concept of "Seven Samurai" is so simple that it's hard to believe it took half a century for a director to come up with the mission-team trope. But that's why Akira Kurosawa was such a genius, he made the seminal action movie and it worked so well that it didn't take much for its Western remake to become a classic on its own merits.
The ingredients are simple and so is the structure: poor people oppressed by a corrupt and powerful man, the recruiting of the seven, the bonding with the villagers which is the meat of the story, then the climactic battle where four of the seven meet their demise. The success of the film depends on how each of these segments are handled and how the cast manages to transcend the material by making us relate to each player or enjoy their presence and interactions.
But it's not as easy as it sounds, the original was a three-hour epic with a clear three-act structure, not only we could identify each Samurai but each death resonated as a mini-tragedy. "The Magnificent Seven", less epic but as entertaining, managed to make at least five of them pretty endearing in a briefer lapse of time. Now, the problem with Antoine Fuqua's 2016 remake is that it's obviously admiring the original material and does the best to duplicate its magic, but it never seems to take its own characters seriously enough, not the magnificent, not the villagers, so why should we care?
As expected, each of the seven embodies a particular trait, Denzel Washington is Sam Chisolm, the Ace, his establishing moment consists on the 'permanent' arrest of a wanted criminal and a few collateral damages. The scene works but it's so reminiscent of one of King Schultz' deeds in "Django Unchained" that it's instantly forgettable. Chris Pratt is the cool one, who enjoys a magic card trick or two and spends half his time delivering a wisecrack. Individually, they're good but together, they're no Brynner and McQueen.
Now, I waited for the taciturn one, the third Samurai/James Coburn type. He's a knife thrower played by Byung-Hun Lee, this is an interesting fellow that deserved a more ominous introduction, but as soon as we're finished admiring his skills, we discover that he's only the sidekick of a more legendary sharpshooter named Goodnight Robicheaux and played by Ethan Hawke. Hawke plays the third more three-dimensional member of the seven but I didn't like the way he stole Billy's thunder, relegated to one simple skill.
And depth would be a luxury for the other magnificent, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo is a Mexican outlaw who's given a chance by Sam and spends the rest of the time exchanging a few racist quips with Pratt, Vincent D'Onofrio is a religious tracker whose voice is the closest thing to comedy relief, and then there's Martin Sensmeier as an exiled Comanche warrior. They're all colorful and ethnically marked but that's not saying much, the Native is defined by his ability to throw arrows, the knife thrower throws knives the religious nutcase speaks to the Lord, the Mexican is... Mexican.
The only oneswho benefit from an extra pinch of depth are Hawke whose troubled actions seem to recall some PTSD shock from the Civil War and Pratt, and Washington. But if you're looking for counterparts to the magnificent seven, don't bother. I didn't expect one but I wish they could have improved the seventh one and made him as a scene stealer as Mifune, but the film didn't even manage to be better than "Young Guns", and I loved "Young Guns", the film had six protagonists and they were not as expendable as the so-called magnificent.
This version with Antoine Fuqua is obviously driven by good intentions and the fact that he decided to make a multi-ethnic cast could have given a special texture, but Fuqua also goes for the female heroine trend, and Haley Bennett (the toughest one from the village) is just so bad-ass she overshadows many of the seven. If Fuqua wanted something original, he could have made her the seventh one. It wouldn't have been the least realistic thing about the film, the introduction of the villain had almost killed any attempt to take it seriously.
They say a film is as good as its villain, on the basis of Bartholomew Bogue, the film should have been great. Peter Saargard revisits a form of old-fashioned mustached villain that is not uninteresting. That said, I can believe any form of evil exploitation, of throwing people off their land, but that a man would be shot in cold blood in front of witnesses, and a woman being axed from behind and the Marshall, no matter how corrupt he is, would do nothing about it, that's too much. If evil doesn't have standards, then the conception of heroism turns into something 'superhero' binary that doesn't really prompt us to root for anyone, since there's no intellectual challenge.
But Haley Bennett as the seventh one would've been a challenging twist, but there were more shots on her cleavage than any scenes involving the last three seven put together so I wondered whether her presence was meant to arouse the male audience or to inspire the female one. But the film leaves a little to care about, especially the villagers who're not given enough screen-time or interactions anyway. And since the timing between the entrance and the battle doesn't exceed forty minutes, we couldn't care less about the outcome.
What lacked in the film is a transition between the introduction and the battle, the fact that many deaths left me cold was indicating of how the film was so reliant on the concept that it forgot to tell a genuinely powerful story, it's just about archetypes colliding into each other in a muck of cinematic conventions. It's fun and entertaining at moments, but the rest of the time, I was scratching my head with perplexity.