DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The "Magnificent Seven" is the remake of a 1960 Western that was based on the Japanese epic "Seven Samurai." The new film is directed by Antoine Fuqua, best known for "Training Day" and "The Equalizer," both of which starred his leading actor here, Denzel Washington. The cast also includes Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Antione Fuqua's remake of the 1960 western "The Magnificent Seven" was chosen to open the Toronto International Film Festival, and it looks and sounds like a classic horse opera. As someone who grew up on Westerns, I loved the familiar elements, hearing the sound of wind blowing through a deserted town and boots echoing on a wooden porch and someone calling a bad guy a yellow-bellied sap-sucking coward. I loved the sight of a long, lean gunfighter hero in black, in this case, played by Denzel Washington.
I like the racial mix, too. The seven in 1960 were all white and hired to protect a town of poor Mexicans from a Frito Bandito stereotype played by Eli Wallach. This time, they're led by a black man, and their ranks include a Mexican, a Native American and a Korean. I'd have loved to see a woman in their number. There were plenty of females who could shoot in the Old West, but at least it's a woman who takes the initiative when her husband is gunned down to hire the seven to save their peaceful town, which this time is in the US.
The plot, of course, is irresistible. It comes from "Seven Samurai," directed by Akira Kurosawa, who was regarded in Japan as the most American-influenced of its filmmakers. It centers on an isolated town menaced by roving bandits, and the samurai hired to defend it. It's drenched in melancholy since those samurai represent a dying feudal past, and the final battle takes place in a drenching rain that kicks up rivers of mud. The great critic Pauline Kael called it a tone poem of force. John Sturges' American transplant has a better reputation than it deserves. It's full of Japanese-sounding observations about the evanescence of gunfighters versus the permanence of people of the land that sound clunky in the mouth of the star, Yul Brynner, though Steve McQueen's coolness is transcendent, and the cast includes James Coburn, Robert Vaughn and Charles Bronson.
The bad news is that the remake is a negligible piece of work. It's just another formula revenge picture, indistinguishable apart from its nominal genre from almost every other action picture at the multiplex. The industrialist villain, played by Peter Sarsgaard, wants to evict the town to mine gold. He makes speeches about capitalism yoking religion to its ends and directs his men to burn down the church. Gold dust seems to have gotten into his brain like syphilis. He coughs and rails and kills. Denzel Washington's Chisholm has a previous acquaintance with him. We don't know exactly what it is until the end, but we can guess too easily.
Chris Pratt, though, seems to revel in being the wise guy. He flirts with the widow who hired them, played by Haley Bennett, and does his best to buck up Ethan Hawke as Goodnight Robicheaux, a legendary gunman, with an attack of jitters. He dares Robicheaux to show off his prowess before the townspeople.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN")
CHRIS PRATT: (As Josh Faraday) These men need inspiration. Inspire them. You are Goodnight Robicheaux after all, ain't you?
ETHAN HAWKE: (As Goodnight Robicheaux) (Unintelligible) we need the lead.
PRATT: (As Josh Faraday) Twenty-three confirmed kills at Antietam. This is one of Connolly's Confederate sharpshooters dubbed the Angel of Death. Do what he does. He's a legend.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) That's some fancy shootin' there - why they call him Goodnight.
PRATT: (As Josh Faraday) Told you.
EDELSTEIN: The other four of the seven are Vincent D'Onofrio as a wild bear of a man who uses axes, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as a wanted Mexican outlaw, Byung-hun Lee as an Asian knife thrower and Martin Sensmeier as a Native American who has a predictable face-off with his opposite who kills for the bad guy. Those characters, with their vastly different styles, could be fun, but Antione Fuqua's direction has no intimacy. It's too brisk, too metronomic. Without violence or its imminent threat, there's nothing going on, and when the violence comes, it's not memorable.
One major character does meet a wrenching explosive end, but the rest of the time you can't tell who's shooting whom. Hordes of men fall off their horses, and you only care about the horses. "The Magnificent Seven" has the trappings of a classic western, and it hits its marks, but there's no grandeur in its images or generosity in its soul. By the time it ended, I forgot why I love Westerns.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: On Monday's show, we'll speak with Peter Berg, who directed the disaster thriller "Deepwater Horizon," about the last hours on the massive oil rig that sank after a series of explosions and fires causing the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Mark Wahlberg stars in the film. Berg also directed "Friday Night Lights." Hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.