Although you can count the number of successful modern westerns on one gunslinger's hand – even if said hand lost a finger or two in a duel – it's not hard to imagine Antoine Fuqua's pitch for a new version of The Magnificent Seven going down like gangbusters: Denzel Washington. On a horse. Killin' no-good, yellow-bellied varmints.
Yes, for sure, I'd buy a ticket. Who wouldn't?
Yet while Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) does indeed deliver an impressive-looking Washington atop a mighty steed, dispatching villains with ease, all but winking at the camera, that's just about all his remake provides. The rest, well, it's mostly slim pickings – the kind of watered-down material that might otherwise get you run outta town and off into the sunset.
Casting Washington in the starring role here is, of course, a neat reversal of John Sturges's 1960 film (itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa's 1954 classic Seven Samurai).
In the original, Yul Brynner's hero was a (literal) white knight coming to the aid of poor Mexican villagers, who were being railroaded by a local bandito (played by the, um, also white Eli Wallach).
In Fuqua's update, it's Washington and a group of racially diverse compatriots (a Mexican outlaw, a Comanche hunter, a Korean assassin) helping out a town of desperate white folks, who are being railroaded by a local robber baron (a mustache-twirlingly evil Peter Sarsgaard).
So, points for flipping the script, a rare feat in the always diversity-averse studio system. But at the same time, that's all Fuqua really does – it's as if he and his studio Sony expect a grand Hollywood parade for their casting choices alone, instead of using the film itself to say anything of depth or actual importance about race in America, or how hero myths are constructed, or anything beyond the literal text. The good guy is black, the villain is white, and isn't that enough?
Well, no. But, again, points for trying.
All of which means the rest of the film is pure blockbuster gloss – perfectly fine for a Saturday afternoon matinee, but instantly forgettable once you've emerged from the dark of a multiplex. Washington does typically fine work as the stone-cold hero, and co-stars Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio and Sarsgaard earn their screen-time.
But Chris Pratt is mostly wasted as he's forced to transfer his Star-Lord routine from Guardians of the Galaxy to the Old West, while those more diverse members of Washington's team (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier and Byung-hun Lee) get little to do beyond existing as life-sized advertisements for the perils of tokenization.
The film is also exceedingly violent, so much so that, as I watched a frontier town and its residents get torn to shreds via a Gatling gun late in the third act, I assumed the film was rated R. (Nope: PG.) In a year where gun violence has dominated the headlines, Fuqua's straight-up fetishization of weaponry cannot help but leave a queasy sensation in the pit of your stomach, even if he's simply playing by the long-established rules of a western shoot-'em-up.
With perhaps a braver studio and more daring, provocative filmmaker, a racially diverse go at The Magnificent Seven could be great, subversive fun.
With Sony and Fuqua, though, it's merely diverting wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am fall-season entertainment that leaves you with the slight itch of regret for what could have been.
Because even though we'd all happily pay to see Washington ride into town to deliver hell to a bunch of cartoon villains, a film – even a western – cannot simply exist as a one-trick pony.