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'The Magnificent Seven' will have to do, far as new Westerns go

Denzel Washington leads a diverse septet of badasses in a PG-13 oater that's still super-violent.
The Magnificent SevenThe Magnificent Seven

‘The Magnificent Seven’
Director:
Antoine Fuqua
Stars: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

“The Magnificent Seven” is a Western. Maybe that’s good enough. The genre has long been as dead as a town drunk who challenged John Wayne to a duel. For every successful exhumation (“3:10 to Yuma,” “Django Unchained”), there’s an earth-rattling bomb (the over-hated “The Lone Ranger”) that kills it dead again. It’s nice, in 2016, to have an oater where a dusty badass walks into a frontier saloon and the piano player stops playing; where a shoot-out happens only after an endless stare-off; where people get shot and fall into a bloodless non-mess. These are cliches, moth-ridden well before “Blazing Saddles” seized upon them. But the Western is a genre that feeds on cliches, thrives on the comfort of familiarity. And besides, do millennials even know what a frontier saloon is?

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Watching Antoine Fuqua’s redo of “The Magnificent Seven,” that pokey 1960 classic about gun-slinging rogues hired to save a town from rascally bandits, is a bittersweet experience — or as bittersweet as a movie can be when it sports a potentially Guinness-level body count. You might be eager to forgive it its slight tonal problem, even its superficial volleys for diversity. Our heroic septet, once six white guys and Yul Brynner, are now a “Fast and/or Furious” rainbow: Now it’s three white guys, a black guy, a Chinese guy, a Native American. “We got us a Mexican!” one of the Caucasians (played by Chris Pratt) jokes when they enlist Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), who is indeed Mexican. But it’s not really a joke. Vasquez, like the other non-whites, isn’t a character so much as a walking ethnicity (and, needless to say, a Donald Trump nightmare).

It will be awhile until Hollywood learns to see other races as people, not People. (It also throws in a strong, rifle-toting woman, played by Haley Bennett, who’s the most swaggering of the otherwise expendable townsfolk.) But until that change comes, “The Magnificent Seven” can always stand as a passable if sometimes questionable entertainment, and the first to give us the sight of Denzel Washington, dressed in all-black, astride a horse. And that’s not nothin’.

He’s Sam Chisolm, the charmingly taciturn leader of the pack. He’ll quickly be joined by a legendary sharp-shooter who buckles under pressure (Ethan Hawke), his friend who he tells terrible people is his man-servant (South Korean superstar Lee Byung-hun), an anti-social Comanche who likes to eat horse hearts (Martin Sensemier) and a burly bruiser rocking a Santa Claus beard. The latter is played by Vincent D’Onofrio, who enters the picture speaking in a high-pitched falsetto, threatening to gift us with his weirdest turn since “Men in Black.” He calms down — you can only imagine the conference calls from horrified execs — and the movie quickly realigns itself as a grim thriller with occasional jokes. Most of them are flung by Pratt, once again stuck between coming off like a real badass and a kid dressing like one for Halloween.

This is the first time Fuqua (“Training Day,” “The Equalizer”) has done PG-13, and it shows. Fuquas like “Olympus Has Fallen” took what could have been a good, brainless time and upset them with real-looking violence. Here, he can't show flying blood or throw in gruesome flesh wound insert shots. He makes up for it by killing all the people, just about. The climax is like a Bosch painting with all the gnarly bits censored. During an earlier, more modest shoot-out — one that “only” claims 25 dead — our heroes each count their kills to see who “won.” No one can count as high as the number mowed down in the epic closer, which seems excessive even before the baddies bust out a Gatling gun. It looks like they indeed destroyed the town in order to save it; when the smoke clears, it’s amazing anyone’s left. (Again, the movie’s PG-13.) The original “The Magnificent Seven” was a spin on Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” but for a few seconds it seems like this one’s going to swap in the ending of “Yojimbo,” in which the lone survivor walks away after dispatching with everyone. (“Now we’ll have some peace and quiet in this town!”)

It’s still a rip-roaring closer, even if it’s eyes are bigger than its stomach, if you will. Fuqua clearly loves hitting all the corny beats, and he lets no less than cerebral Peter Sarsgaard, as his main villain, stick to Malcolm McDowell-in-"Clockwork Orange” stares rather than go full ham like original bad guy Eli Wallach. Fuqua can’t always remember to give all of the Seven anything to do — the minorities who aren’t Denzel barely register, as it were — but he can give us shocking close-ups of Ethan Hawke, his 40-something face now ridden with deep wrinkles like rivers through a valley. Call it a draw.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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