Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven is a little too good at the art of the buildup. While this is welcome, at a time when tentpoles seem to be shunting anything resembling storytelling, it retreads the basic template from its namesake (and, in turn, Seven Samurai), without allowing any breathing room for the ideas it peppers in. The film’s biggest is the outcast status of the seven mercenaries hired to protect a village: not simply gunslingers or ronin, the motley crew are led by a black man (Denzel Washington) and includes a Mexican bandit (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), an exiled Comanche (Martin Sensmeier), and an Asian immigrant (Byung-hun Lee), all an inversion of Western tropes before them (John Sturges’ Magnificent Seven, for instance, has Mexican bandits as the antagonists). That they are partnered up with white men (Chris Pratt, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Ethan Hawke, the latter playing an ex-Confederate), or that it’s white, rural farmers they protect, comes up in passing. That it’s a woman (Haley Bennett) who hires them, to avenge her murdered husband, is the punchline to an offhand joke or an excuse for unexplored sexual tension (a few winks aside, the film is remarkably chaste). Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk’s script ignores any tension which might digress from the gather/plan/siege structure they rework to arrive at a happy ideal of frontier lower classes fighting back against a robber baron and his army of private goons.
Fuqua, a reliable (if unadventurous) director, never rises above the script’s strengths: conversations are chummy audience-pleasers, and stars framed with an eye for their profiles (Washington, especially, sporting that Yul Brynner black hat and occasionally slipping into the biblical vengeance mode he perfected in films like Man on Fire and The Equalizer, gets a few, mythic shots in silhouette). Showdowns even hum with intensity. Every player is shown moving into place: the James Horner music swelling, glances cast, hands hovering near pistols. Anticipation of explosive violence. It’s superb, but the payoff deflates. Lacking any of The Equalizer‘s slasher-film lunacy to power the action, Fuqua unfortunately jumbles gunfights after a few cuts. People and gunfire begin to have no geographic relation to one another. They simply spawn into existence, crashing through doors or windows to be gunned down, turkey shoot-style. The build, so efficiently done, blown apart because nothing progresses from there. It all simply happens.