If you wanted to point to the perfect Hollywood western – not necessarily the most complex or delicately shaded, but tallest in the saddle – John Sturges’s iconic 1960 oater would be hard to outgun. It sweeps you up in manly camaraderie. It has a killer cast of rising action stars (Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn). It gallops along to the most exhilarating opening theme ever composed for a movie.
So who can blame Antoine Fuqua ('Training Day') for remaking it? His sturdy new version, starring a flint-eyed Denzel Washington as bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (a role once filled by Yul Brynner, passing for 'Cajun'), plays closer to the original’s source material, Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s smoky 1954 film 'Seven Samurai'. Like the best westerns, it's also timely: a tale about a black hero and his six men who clean up a besieged town from rapacious businessmen, it feels like an unambiguously fond farewell to the Obama years. And if Peter Sarsgaard’s villain isn’t in the same league as the first film’s Eli Wallach, he brings some serious scowl to the proceedings.
Today’s 'Magnificent Seven' is a vehicle for wall-to-wall action, including one devastating sequence with a hand-cranked Gatling gun that calls to mind Sam Peckinpah’s gory 'The Wild Bunch'. If Fuqua and his screenwriters (including Nic Pizzolatto from 'True Detective') slightly botch the underlying theme of redemption – Ethan Hawke’s haunted ex-Confederate sharpshooter could have been more developed – it still makes good on its ideas of community pride. Vincent D’Onofrio puts a weird quiver in his voice as a gruff bear-like brawler struck by the meaningfulness of his new mission with Chisolm. He’s the soul of the movie and more often than not, you’ll feel what he’s feeling.