Over the last twenty years, the term "remake" has become something of a dirty word, particularly when applied to movies. Until the 1980's, the reality was that unless you could find a repertory or re-release screening of your favorite film you would only be able to see it once during its first run. Television airings helped alleviate this, but even then it was a crapshoot which films would be allowed to be shown where and when, and before the existence of VCR's, you'd still miss it if you weren't home to see it. For those reasons and more, film studios would often remake popular and successful films that were either a handful of years old or made in a non-English language. In a way this wasn't too different from the practice of a revival of a theatrical play, in that it involved the same script newly produced by a different creative team with a slight spin on the material. In the post-home video, post-Internet streaming age, that aspect of cinematic remakes became lost, as the audience's access to the original work is now unlimited. Remakes are still as prevalent as ever in modern Hollywood, however, and those with a cynical view would say that it's for reasons of greed, capitalizing on a name brand and fond memories of the original to get both fans and newcomers in seats to make a quick buck. There are many examples of misguided, ill-conceived remakes out there, but the same can be said for sequels. After all, a sequel to a popular film seeks to both capitalize on the original's success and attempt to recapture or "remake" it, so it's really no different when it's a full fledged remake altogether. Just like sequels, remakes can take a pre-existing story and find exciting and entertaining new ideas and themes in the material, and can present it to a new culture or a new generation. These remakes justify their existence by capturing a flavor of the original film, yet tell their own story in their own way, without retreading too much of the same ground. Antoine Fuqua's The Magnificent Seven is one of those remakes.
One of the things that works in favor of Fuqua's Magnificent Seven is that it's not wholly a remake of the original 1960 Seven, but of the true source material, Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. In 1954 Kurosawa, along with writers Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, told a tale of a diverse group of samurai wandering through feudal Japan who are hired by a small farming village to protect it from a nasty gang of bandits. Far more then a historical drama, Seven Samurai is an unsympathetic look at the differences of class within Japan then and now (well, "now" for 1954 at least), as well as an exploration of the lonely and tragic nature of the character of the samurai contrasted with their violent reputation. In the midst of all this, Kurosawa invented the modern action movie, using multiple cameras, stunt work, slow motion and other techniques that had never been used before in motion pictures and would continue to be used countless times from then on. Six years after the film premiered, director John Sturges and writer William Roberts decided to bring the story of Seven Samurai to America. Instead of remaking the same movie with English speaking actors, however, the filmmakers had the inspired idea to transpose the material to what was the most popular genre of the time: the Western. The resulting movie was The Magnificent Seven, and while itbecame a classic Western in its own right (thanks in large part to the iconic Elmer Bernstein score), it's by and large a direct translation of Seven Samurai, with some diminishing returns. The majority of the main cast are excellent, the action is well done, and there's a charismatic villain, but the villagers are reduced to the deep background of the story and Horst Buchholz is given the unenviable task of following Toshiro Mifune in the misfit samurai/gunman role, with the film suffering for it. What Antoine Fuqua and his collaborators do is adapt Seven Samurai to the Western genre more fully then the original Seven, remaking the superior source material rather than making a copy of a copy.
Many of the new changes made in adapting Seven Samurai to the screen a second time make this Magnificent Seven more uniquely distinct. Set in the post-Civil War town of Rose Creek, a slimy robber baron, Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) all but sacks the town and its residents in order to claim the land due to a nearby gold mine sequestered in a mountain. After several villagers are murdered and the church is burned down (making the villain even more immediately despicable then Samurai and the original Seven) a group of townsfolk led by Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) seek help from anyone they can. They happen upon warrant officer Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) in a nearby city, and after explaining their plight to him convince him to not only help defend the town, but put together a team of several other fighters (Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Byung-Hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Martin Sensmeier) to stop Bogue for good. The townspeople are trained as best as can be by the gunmen, friendships are forged and broken, and a grim final battle lies in wait.
Fuqua and writers Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto update the material to a modern Western, following in the footsteps of recent popular Westerns such as HBO's Deadwood and Tarantino's Django Unchained. The towns and cities are dirty and dusty, the costumes ratty and worn, the blood a dried red and caked with sweat, the facial hair attractively unkempt. In short, none of the edges are taken off, and it's impressive that this tone and atmosphere is able to come through so strongly when the film is PG-13 (it's certainly on the harder side of that rating, of course). While some may see the dialogue and violence limitations set by aiming at such a MPAA rating as too much, it's an interesting choice for Fuqua, being himself used to a lack of censorship in his films (indeed, out of his twenty-something film career as a director only one other film of his got a lesser rating than R). Rather then feeling neutered, the film feels more delightfully throwback, presenting a harsh modern Western world but without using the crutch of extreme gore and language. This allows the writers to play more with the dialogue, giving the characters distinction and unique flourishes that at times reveal more depth and at others help keep the mystique of the warrior gunmen. Pizzolato's influence on the script is certainly felt, especially in the bizzaro monologues given by Sarsgaard and D'Onofrio's characters, echoing his television script work from shows like True Detective. Fuqua takes that dialogue and overlaps it in many of the group scenes, lending the film an Altman-esque level of immersion at times. Finally, Fuqua doesn't disappoint when it comes to the action sequences, and although a few are added to fulfill modern action audiences' expectations (the Seven have to first kick a small force out of the town before they can defend it from an even larger invading army) each one provides a visceral impact while not losing sight of the characters either physically or emotionally.
It's the characters, and the actors that portray them, that really make this version of Seven stand out. Denzel Washington, as many have pointed out, is one of the last true movie stars working today, insofar as not only is his name a draw for an audience but his performances remain so consistently good. The persona of a seasoned, moralistic gunman fits Washington like a glove, so much so that he needn't do much more then stand around and look good. But he goes above and beyond, providing the character with an inner life so compelling that the film can't help but reveal his backstory in full. None of the other major characters are afforded that luxury, and it's to Washington's credit that this special treatment is not only earned but necessary by the time it's revealed (at the right time and with the right character, I should add). The only other characters who come as close to being fully fleshed out are Bennett's frontierswoman, Hawke's ex-Confederate soldier with a legendary reputation, and Sarsgaard's slithery baddie. Fuqua gets a lot of mileage from re-pairing Hawke and Washington on screen, allowing them to echo their roles in Training Day as Hawke's Goodnight faces a moral dilemma of cowardice while Washington's Chisolm is steadfast in trying to convince him of his point of view. Even if Goodnight's arc is predictable, it's no less enjoyable as Hawke puts every twitch and bead of sweat on screen. By contrast Bennett's Emma is enjoyably unpredictable, especially considering that this is a remake of a film that awkwardly inserted a romance subplot between a villager and one of the Seven (a poor translation of Samurai's subplot of an affair between a samurai and a village girl, exploring inter-class romance). Here, Emma is her own woman who is extremely capable, and though she eventually joins in the shooting it's never portrayed as the expected "just one of the boys" action heroine trope. She shares protagonist duties with Chisolm, and without her the movie doesn't work. Sarsgaard is similarly indispensable, playing a villain so heinous that at no point does he attempt to be sympathetic, despite having reasons (however childish they may be) for the deeds he commits. It's a blast watching these characters duel with and around each other, enhanced by Cinematographer Mauro Fiore's excellent close ups.
The Magnificent Seven is ultimately not just a successful remake, but a deeper and more intriguing one, thanks to the changes made that subtly inform character and theme. With the exception of the characters I mentioned above, the rest of the Seven don't have expository scenes but rather small tidbits of backstory mentioned about them at various times, bits that are intriguing enough to keep them mysterious yet identifiable as types. Chris Pratt, who seemed a bit awkward thrust into the hunky leading man role in Jurassic World, is right at home here, playing a devil may care fast talking gambler whose past literally catches up with him. Vincent D'Onofrio's performance as an ex-Native American hunter is swinging for the fences, adopting a voice and persona that's incredibly weird at first and more fascinating as the film goes on, particularly when his religious nature is slowly revealed. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the film is its ending, in that it follows both Samurai and the original Seven with leaving only three of the gang alive, but it's incredibly telling which three manage to survive. It also may or may not be telling how much Bogue resembles a certain real estate magnate who is ever so proud of the fact that he built his empire without any high society friends and who likes to put his name on everything. It's these changes and more that give this version of The Magnificent Seven relevance in the time it's being released to the public, using a classic story to comment on issues of the current day. In so doing it becomes a remake that isn't just another cash-in, but rather another chapter in what will hopefully be a story interpreted for decades to come.