Look, if you’re not stirred by the sight of Denzel Washington, clad in head-to-toe black, riding a black stallion over dunes and bluffs and right up to the saloon of some two-bit frontier town — well, then maybe the movies just aren’t for you. Washington, of course, strides right into the joint, right up to the bar, and orders a whiskey, knowing full well the white sumbitch back there’s not going to treat him fairly. I say “Washington” rather than the character’s name because at this point the movie hasn’t gotten around to divulging it, and the director — Washington’s frequent collaborator Antoine Fuqua — knows that, above all else, we’re watching this greatest of African-American movie stars claim that bar, that town, this film genre. For about 30 seconds, characters in this brutal, occasionally stirring Magnificent Seven remake squawk about its central badass being black. Then out come the guns, and they don’t squawk no more, and the movie presses on. It’s Denzel’s, and who would ever be dumb enough to question that?
Culturally this is important, the realization of the wouldn’t-it-be-crazy? premise of Blazing Saddles and the wouldn’t-it-be-bloody? revenge fantasy of Django Unchained — the movie is a straight-up Hollywood Western, only revisionist in the diversity of its leads and the wearying slaughter of its final third. For fans of the star, though, it’s also a simple relief. Washington’s last film with Fuqua, The Equalizer, cast him as a badass drip, the Jason Voorhees of the Home Depot, a schlubby murderbot eviscerating local hoods with power tools. If the best thing Hollywood has for Denzel Goddam Washington to do is to playact killing sprees, at least now he’s getting to do it in a 10-gallon hat.
Fuqua (Training Day, Southpaw) has always favored a loner’s sour, bummed-out masculinity, exhibiting a suspicion of leaders that might seem at odds with the ethos of The Magnificent Seven. John Sturges’ original film, from 1960, is — like Seven Samurai before it — a team-building adventure, a study in motivation and friendship, an epic in which the camaraderie proves as memorable as the killing. Fuqua’s Seven eventually gets around to the bonding, although it opens with the kind of grim scene he has long specialized in: one big-talking bastard monologuing daftly at the weak and scared, ruling through threat of violence.
The villain is robber-baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), whose introductory speech invokes God and capitalism and democracy, so we know this pastiche is serious. (Nic “True Detective” Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk share screenplay credit, but the good news is that the dialogue, after this, is mostly crisp and aphoristic, stripped of pretension, the speech of folk heroes who live closer than we do to the phrasing of King James.) Bad Bogue seizes a town, kills some innocents and torches a church. It’s a scary and effective sequence, but it’s trumped immediately by Washington’s entrance, a hard man crossing a hard land, that smile of his coming easier than in The Equalizer — and framed by a marvelous stretch of mustache.
He looks so powerful, so beautiful, so right that you may find yourself wondering how we had a black president for seven full years before Washington got to play the lead in a Western. Somewhere in there we learn his character’s name: Chisolm. It’s the Yul Brynner role, the leader who assembles a seven-man band to take back a town. This time, it’s more of a seven-person band, and even that “seven” is pretty fluid, with Haley Bennett (as the widow who talks Chisolm into saving her town) at least a charter member.
The first half is a series of tense introductions and showdowns, as Chisolm gathers his men (and the widow tags along.) Chris Pratt is the first aboard, playing a quick-draw cardsharp so prickly he even turns the gang’s campfire colloquies into near-shootouts. Pratt gets the best lines — “That Bill is pretty nifty with those pig-stickers” — and he hammers each square on the nail. Here he’s the funny pulp-fiction tough his Jurassic World dope wanted to be.
The rest of the seven are one-note characters, but stick a couple together and you get something like a chord. There’s a Comanche brave (Martin Sensmeier), a knife-expert assassin (Byung-hun Lee), a Santa-stocky Indian hunter (Vincent D’Onofrio), a laconic outlaw from south of the border (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and a Confederate sharpshooter turning yellow with age (Ethan Hawke). “Maybe my grandfather killed your grandfather,” Garcia-Rulfo’s character cracks, and it doesn’t get more American than that.
Once they’re pledged to the cause, and once they’ve won their cakewalk first battle, Fuqua relaxes, letting them joke and hang out as they prepare a small town for a final showdown with what they expect will be an army. Against the great history of film, or even just of Westerns, these scenes are merely good, maybe even rushed, but against the chaotic banalities of recent studio fare they play like Turner Classic Movies — you get to know these guys, and worry over them, and enjoy the ways their individual dramas and friendships play out.
Too bad the extended action finale is unmistakably 2016, a battle in which it seems like hundreds die — there’s plenty of time to wonder things like “Why does bad cowboy #82 press on to attack the heroes over the corpses of his 81 predecessors?” After much too much of that, Fuqua elects to remake The Wild Bunch for awhile instead, borrowing that bloody classic’s signature weapon for some bloodless PG-13 killing. By then it’s clear that, as in The Equalizer, Fuqua has nothing to say about all this violence — just that he’s got lots to show us.
Fuqua offers fine vistas and some inspired visions of men on horses. Occasionally, he stages a bit of action that’s clear and convincing enough to jolt you. He shoots the hell out of his Western-town set in every way possible, his camera nosing around to survey the gunmen hiding on roofs and in belfries. You get enough of a sense of this place and these men — and that widow! — that it’s a disappointment when, in the end, we just have to watch it all blow to hell.