The Magnificent Seven had its worldwide premiere last week. I went to see it to find out how it stacks up with the film that inspired it, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, and what its relationship is to John Sturges’s original The Magnificent Seven from 1960. Here is my review.
First things first: the new Magnificent Seven is not a direct remake of either of the two films mentioned above. The basic structure is naturally the same — a town needs help, seven heroes are gathered to help it, defences are built, a battle is fought — but beyond that the smaller details follow neither Kurosawa’s film nor Sturges’s western adaptation of it. Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven wants to stand on its own.
This is certainly a good thing. Beyond the surface, these films have always had something contemporary to say, encouraging an update on the formula. Seven Samurai reflects on post-WW2 Japan and its large scale societal changes. The original The Magnificent Seven can be interpreted as a commentary on the directions of US foreign policy following the Korean War. The new The Magnificent Seven likewise appears to attach itself onto a contemporary socio-political issue, that of social and economic inequality and how they effect democracy.
Unfortunately, the screenplay never manages to fulfil this hint of a promise. And even more disappointingly, this is just one example of a wider, indeed rather fundamental flaw with the film. The Magnificent Seven is full of ideas that would sound good on paper or in a production meeting, but remain either entirely undeveloped or poorly executed on screen.
This is a pity because there should certainly be an interesting film in there somewhere. We all know that the base material is strong enough, there are plenty of good ideas that the filmmakers have thrown in, and it seems evident that the talented cast would be up for the task of delivering a modern classic. But the story remains strangely undercooked despite the numerous rewrites that it went through, the dialogue alternates between clichéd and laughable, and Fuqua’s work from the director’s chair is surprisingly toothless and unable to makie use of even the rare opportunities that the screenplay would offer him. On top of that, the editing is likewise particularly pedestrian, at times even haphazard, and as a result the film lacks the sense of place and character that both of its predecessors, and Kurosawa’s original in particular, so well embody.
Kurosawa once wrote that “with a good script a good director can produce a masterpiece; with the same script a mediocre director can make a passable film. But with a bad script even a good director can’t possibly make a good film.” In many ways, The Magnificent Seven is a wonderful example of this truth. But there seems to be more to it here.
If there is an exception to Kurosawa’s rule of screenplays, it may be found in films that are visually heavily stylised, the kind that don’t really worry about narrative structures or polished dialogue and are more focused on delivering an onslaught of memorable cinematic moments. From modern filmmakers, the works of Zack Snyder are particularly representative examples of this. Like The Magnificent Seven, Snyder’s films tend to consist of a series of clichés while lacking any real depth beyond some kind of an overall statement of intent. These films have little to say, but much to show you. They may not be particularly memorable works, yet there is a certain perverse attraction to watching their moments of overblown and over-stylised cinematic moments. Superman as the Christ figure, Vietnam as experienced through the eyes of The Comedian, or, of course, Gerard Butler growling “This is Sparta!”. While watching The Magnificent Seven, one occasionally wonders if it wasn’t at some point meant to be something like this, or at least towards that direction. There certainly are plenty of potential moments in The Magnificent Seven for that type of visual gluttony, and as a genre the western is particularly suited for it.
But Fuqua is no Snyder, or at least he seems to have no intention of going down that route, even if it might be the only way to save the screenplay. The Magnificent Seven lacks style and rhythm just like it lacks weight. Frankly, it feels like someone telling you about an action film that you would actually want to watch. Everything about it sounds interesting, but only because it is a list of interesting things. It is not cinema.
It is therefore a testimony to their talents that despite the screenplay and director so actively working against them, the cast — and Denzel Washinton, Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio in particular — still manage to give fairly memorable performances.
But this is nowhere near enough to save the film. So, both thumbs down from me for The Magnificent Seven, a film that I was cautiously optimistic about when stepping into the cinema. Ever the optimist, I should perhaps have known better.
I will nonetheless finish this review on a more positive note and offer a film recommendation. The second film in my double bill for the day happened to be Clint Eastwood’s Sully, and as it happens it turned out to be far closer to Kurosawa’s filmmaking than The Magnificent Seven. I wouldn’t call Sully a modern classic, but it is a well-crafted and altogether pleasant feel-good film that, like most of Kurosawa’s films, features a determined if sometimes self-questioning main character, narrates a story that is focused on processes and their outcomes and in doing so concentrates on the “how” rather than the “why”, and which ultimately reflects the core question of Kurosawa’s cinema: how we as humans can be happy together. As a bonus, it stars Tom Hanks, who surely is Hollywood’s equivalent of Takashi Shimura.
So, go see Sully and forget about The Magnificent Seven. Unless, of course, you want to see the western purely for its Kurosawa connection.
2 October 2016
Well, thats a pity! I’ve been super busy lately so despite really looking forward to seeing it, I managed not to catch it on its relatively brief run here. Most of the reviews seem lukewarm so I guess that sucked out some of the enthusiasm I felt for it. Unfortunately I guess I was right to suspect that the director didn’t have the imagination to make something new out of the basic story. I’ll try to catch it on dvd/streaming when I have the chance.
Interestingly though, when I finally got to the cinema this week I caught a film which would count as a Seven Samurai remake if it wasn’t based very closely on a true story. Its a netflix original film, given a brief cinema release here in Ireland, called The Siege of Jadotville. It will be on netflix next week.
The parallels with Seven Samurai are striking. The Siege occurred in the Congo in 1961 when a small unit of Irish UN soldiers, for reasons lost in the mists of geopolitics, found themselves under severe attack from a mix of local tribespeople and French/Belgian mercenaries without any help from the rest of the UN forces. The entire incident was considered an embarrassment for all the authorities so was quietly hushed up, and has been something of a cause celebre for the soldiers and their families, in particular the failure to acknowledge the incredible military skill of their leader, Pat Quinlan, who organised an tactical defence which held off a heavily armed force at least 20 times greater than his for 6 days, without losing a single soldier. Jamie Dornan plays him very much as a Kambei type figure, trying to use a deep understanding of defence tactics to defeat a much larger invading force. The film doesn’t have any references or direct nods to Seven Samurai that I could catch, but the scenes setting out the geography of the battle and the specific tactics did closely mirror the mid part of SS, so I suspect the film makers did at least examine some of Kurosawa’s structure and technique.
The film is by no means perfect. The script is horribly clunky in parts. They obviously tried to explain the geopolitics of what went on at the time, but that period is so complex and opaque that I think it would defeat a Graham Greene or Le Carre to incorporate it into a film script. The result is a lot of slightly bemused looking actors in period clothing mouthing bits of history lessons, or ambiguous scenes showing famous incidents such as the might be, might not have been, assassination of Dag Hammerskjold. The first time director is great at the action scenes, which are superbly done, but much less confident with the domestic and political background. I did note with approval, with my military history nerd hat on, that the battle and military scenes are very close to what must have been the reality on the ground – another thing it shared with Kurosawas film.