Famed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece Seven Samurai was a landmark film for a wide variety of reasons. Perhaps its most notable legacy was that its plot of humble villagers hiring a small team of elite warriors to defend their town against a horde of bandits has proven to be both very appealing and easily adaptable to other settings. And thus, it has inspired many adaptations and re-imaginings* over the last half-century. Certainly, the most notable remake was 1960’s The Magnificent Seven, which moved the story to the Old West and featured gunfighters instead of samurai. That movie has also become a classic, spawning three sequels as well as a television series. And now, in the age when the modern moviemaking industry is often criticized for being too focused on reboots, sequels, and remakes, someone has seen fit to remake The Magnificent Seven, meaning we have a rare remake of a remake on our hands. I’m not gonna lie, that’s either a really bold move or a really blinkered one.
Anyways, like the 1960 version, 2016’s The Magnificent Seven is a Western. The basic story isn’t too far removed from its predecessor, but it does have different locations and explores a slightly different situation. It does use some of the old music from its predecessor; so it clearly wants to establish an explicit connection to the older film. But overall, I’d say it hits the right balance between familiar and different. Beyond that, this is a picture that aspires, for the most part, to be your ordinary, everyday, run-of-the-mill Western. That is admittedly a low bar, but one it generally hits. Many big Western tropes — saloons, showdowns, riding into the sunset — show up in some form; and they’re not badly done. They are tied together decently and make for entertaining bits. There’s a bit more action in this version than in its 1960 predecessor, but that’s to be expected given Hollywood trends; and it does mean that this picture can work as an action film if you so desire. Otherwise, structurally and aesthetically, this movie aspires to be old-school. It’s just trying to be a big dumb, fun Western; and I like big, dumb fun Westerns.
The main new spin on this story this time around is the diversity of the titular seven. Whereas the gunfighters in the 1960 version were all white; this time around, we have quite a bit of ethnic variety. One is African American; one is Native American; one is Hispanic; one is Asian; and only three are White. The movie is certainly trying to be more socially progressive in that regard — that’s the one area where it’s clearly not wanting to be old-school — which is admirable. While I’m on the subject, the film also tries to present women as more proactive and willing to help fight, rather than damsels in distress or victims waiting to be saved; and that’s good as well.
Unfortunately, the actual characters themselves are pretty weak. Most of the members of the titular seven are underdeveloped/thematically shallow/seem very distant, and we don’t really get to know them that well. The same goes for the villain — who is as one-dimensional as one-dimensional gets — as well as the inhabitants of the town the seven are trying to save, who, again, we never really get to know at all. The lone exceptions are the members of the seven played by Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt, who give their characters a great deal of personality and are clearly having a lot of fun making this movie. I wish the other people in this film were as memorable.
This dearth of good characters in the movie does cripple it to an extent. In a picture like this, I want heroes I appreciate enough to root for and villains I hate enough to root against; both of those require a certain amount character depth and emotional investment, and I just didn’t get that here. The filmmakers should have tried harder in that respect; particularly when both the 1960 The Magnificent Seven and Seven Samurai had many great characters. Since they’re remaking this story, I don’t understand why they didn’t try to remake the kind of characterization we got in those previous versions. They really dropped the ball there.
All in all, this movie is just okay. It is entertaining for what it is, and it is fun to be pulled into the trappings of a classic-feeling Western. But with so few worthwhile characters, I can’t be too positive about it. If you’re into Westerns or action movies, I recommend checking this out. For everyone else, I’d say it’s probably not worth it.
*Notable versions of this story include 1980’s Battle Beyond the Stars, with an outer space setting; as well as a few comedy/parodies including 1986’s The Three Amigos and 1998’s A Bugs Life. While I’m on the subject, according to Zack Snyder, next year’s Justice League will take inspiration from the Seven Samurai as well. Clearly, this tale has a certain appeal.