Synopsis: See the review for King Arthur, but give it a Western setting!
We should establish from the get-go: The Magnificent 7 is not a pure Western. Other than the setting and gunslinging, there is very little Western about this movie. Do not go into this movie thinking you are getting True Grit or Unforgiven or Once Upon a Time in the West.
You are getting Con Air on horses. I feel like this is the best way to say, “Solid entertainment on a B-level. No thinking necessary. Leave your brain at the door and have a good time.” Hey, lots of people like Con Air, including myself! I wasn’t crazy about the announcement of one of the most beloved Westerns of all time (That soundtrack! That ragtag group of friends! Yul Brynner! I love Westerns!) but then I heard the name Antoine Fuqua and the action lover in me became slightly more intrigued as I whipped out the King Arthur checklist:
- Ensemble cast? Check.
- Badass secondary characters with unique abilities? Check.
- A doppelganger for Hollywood’s actress of the moment who makes penis jokes? Check.
- A villain played by an actor whose last name is basically Skarsgard, give or take a few letters? Check.
SOLD. I don’t know what magical water Fuqua’s drinking from his faucets, but the guy has a knack for acing my guilty pleasure genre of historical action… emphasis on the action, less so with the history. The Magnificent 7 is like he went back to King Arthur and thought, “Let’s make this story less complicated with less travel and a racially diverse cast that actually makes sense given the setting. Our good guy is going to talk less from his mouth and more with his actions. And let’s give everyone guns!”
In this less complicated story, Peter Sarsgaard terrorizes a small town because he wants GOLD and a brave lady stumbles across Denzel Washington, who agrees to help her because MONEY, and he easily recruits a ragtag gang of misfits because WHY NOT and then there’s a lot of GUNS and FIRE and SHOOTING. This actually works, because Westerns have always been simple in plot and typically to the point, with single introductory moments to establish if someone is a good or bad guy. Is the guy wearing a white hat? Good guy. Shot from the boots up to the belt and then up to the face? Probably a bad guy.
The Magnificent 7 does some quick work of letting you know who the good guy is and then stampedes all over what you know of a traditional Western. The story is just inconsistent enough to make you say, “Wha?” Zero quiet, calculated moments between real enemies to build the tension to a quick gunfight. No journeys that take several minutes getting to other places. (Westerns spend a lot of time traveling. If Character is heading to a town, there’s a full minute of landscape shots, a campfire heart to heart, probably an issue with the horse, a creek to cross, and a hunting scene.) Also, less racism! With its all-too-obvious diverse cast, Magnificent 7 quite literally shoots the outdated Western model, where racism is presented as acceptable, in the mouth. Really. This takes place in a scene where the minorities kill everyone shortly after it’s pointed out they are minorities.
Plotwise, we get a mentality of LET’S GET TO THE ACTION, DON’T THINK TOO HARD, DENZEL IS GOD, IT WORKED IN BLAZING SADDLES, SHANGHAI NOON WAS ALSO GREAT, AND HERE IS A GUN. Man, this movie moves really fast and somehow slow at the same time. The Incomplete 6 just agree to join Denzel on his mission without much hassle and motivation. There’s even a training montage. Later, we get several scenes of non-bonding as the cast jokes around in an entertaining fashion but fail to actually learn anything about each other.
Enter the King Arthur ensemble cast model, which more or less has the actors playing shades of themselves, which makes them pretty empty characters. With the exception of an entirely unnecessary unraveling of Ethan Hawke’s PTSD, who is by far the least interesting character, we’re not told where anyone else got their skills from or why they feel compelled to join Not Jennifer Lawrence in a “yeah, you’ll die” mission. That’s fine. It’s Con Air, not Shawshank Redemption. Seven people is a lot to cram into the forefront of a movie. I came to see Byung-Hun Lee play with knives, Chris Pratt be aloof, and Martin Sensmeier throw a few tomahawks. I got so much of that!
We also get an unnecessary amount of Haley Bennet’s cleavage, which is cool if you’re into that but her outfit is incredibly inconsistent with what they are trying to do with the character. A farmer’s wife who knows her way around a gun or two and is used to manual labor probably wouldn’t wear what would be considered an undergarment and long skirt on a long journey or anticipated emergency. Girl’s out in the sun, getting on and off a horse, probably has to crouch a lot. It’s impractical. I get it, sex appeal, she’s a love interest, and all that. But for a movie that is trying to be fairly progressive (albeit PC) in their casting, it just screams outdated and sharply contrasts those efforts. She had the chance to be just as interesting with a gun as Lee’s Billy was with his knives.
Visually, I really enjoyed watching this movie- it was surprisingly colorful and vibrant, which is a nice change of pace from the murkiness flooding Hollywood. There are some really lovely Instagram posts with big blue skies. Fuqua really has this action thing down. Boy, is it well shot and pleasant to watch (Assassin’s Creed, I’m looking at you). I appreciate that Fuqua isn’t afraid of using long tracking shots that actually show the full body of the horse at a smooth pace instead of GALLOPING along with it. It’s so nice to see a character’s face and their full gun instead of choppy barrel shots. I love that I saw Sensmeier nocking his bow and shooting an arrow, which then hit its target from the same place. There is some excellent camerawork following Lee around as he’s taking dudes out, with a minimal amount of shaky cam- and as a result, I appreciated Lee’s physical talents and the stunt work. I was marveling at the work because it was highlighted or doing the highlighting. That’s what I should be doing as a member of the audience, not wasting time and effort struggling with linearity.
Like King Arthur, the action is smooth and solid, mostly in the hand-to-hand category thanks to the aforementioned Lee and Sensmeier. On the flip side, the gun action is wacky with some really implausible Legolas-level stuff flying around here- Denzel, at the age of 60, hides behind his horse while it’s still in motion and hops back on like it’s nothing. Dynamite goes off willy nilly. There is a Gatling gun that hits a few people but doesn’t quite kill them. However absurd the action may be, it’s still fun and enjoyable to watch. There are two big shoot-outs in the movie, with the second lasting about fifteen to twenty straight minutes. If you’re looking for pure entertainment, you won’t have to go much further than this. It’s pretty much what you can expect from a just above B action movie.
Action movie. Not Western.