"Magnificent Seven" / The Bounty Hunter / Denzel Washington
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Columbia Pictures’ THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN / The Bounty Hunter / Denzel Washington

NOTE: This piece contains spoilers.

What can we ask of a remake? Hollywood has recently pushed this question to its limit thrusting forward reimagined stories that once seemed to resonate. From Robocop and Judge Dredd to Point Break and Ben-Hur, the last fifty years of cinema has been less a graveyard than a breeding ground for the new millennium. Magnify that to the last five years of American cinema and superheroes have been accompanied by the superheroic revivification of Hollywood “classics.”

The Magnificent Seven, directed by Antoine Fuqua, is the latest addition to Hollywood’s attempt to make-over by making right. With the titular gang now a diverse cast of characters lead by Denzel Washington, it might appear that the industry is finally answering the calls to open up its walls and expand its vision of America. Then again, maybe not.

As far as story goes, things are pretty straight forward. In 1879 Rose Creek, a small town whose economy is sustained by mining, is threatened by Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). Bogue, a slender if not anemic villain with furled brow and creased forehead, is a bland if classic villain. He is the rapacious American industrialist. When he arrives at Rose Creek he issues an ultimatum: either the inhabitants sell their land at a reduced rate or the weapons of industrialism will be used to burn the town to the ground.

To prove he isn’t bluffing, Bogue kills various townsfolk as a warning. Nothing is sacred, not the church, not the children and not the law. With three weeks to come up with a decision Emma Cullen (Hayley Bennet), whose husband was killed in Bogue’s proof of might, and Teddy Q (Luke Grimes) enlist Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington), a “peace officer” and bounty hunter to protect Rose Creek. So begins the gathering of the glorious gang and a melodrama of “innocence” protected.

The protection of white men and women is but one of conventions that this film is built on. Rather than undermine long held conventions of melodramatic cinema, Fuqua and the writers Nic Pizzolato and Richard Wenk, ever so slightly tinker. Realism is not the name of the game here and this might be for the better. After all, “realism” is often conflated with the allegedly realistic and the term becomes a shorthand used to hide the gross fascination with the repetition of certain words or persistent and sustained violence. It is not uncommon that the gratuitous wielding of language is met with the response: “But that is how it was—that is how they talked.” In this version of 1879 such a response seems to miss the point.

Only about a year removed from its theatrical release, it is hard not view The Magnificent Seven in light of Quentin Tarantino’s less ironically titled The Hateful Eight. However, the difference between something like Hateful Eight and this remake is that Tarantino knows the conventions and wants to wink, nod, nudge and tell you something by twisting them to, and sometimes past, their breaking point. He holds up and stretches the residue of the convention so that the story is knowingly familiar. Only then does Tarantino celebrate what is rote by crushing tradition. Shredding the convention of its excess, he plays with the remnants, turning the chaotic assemblage of detritus into an excessively violent didacticism.

The Magnificent Seven knows the conventions and seems to swim with them. Embracing the very rules of the genre, The Magnificent Seven acknowledges the world outside of Hollywood, only to reincorporate that world back into the old rules.

This is clear from the opening prologue where the church is made a scene of political and social disagreement and negotiation as folks argue what to do about Bogue (a scene effectively parodied 40 years earlier in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles). And then he shows up. Before any of the film’s leading seven have been introduced, before the title has been revealed, we meet an evil man desecrating the religious and social institutions that have shaped the town’s sense of identity.

But the cold-hearted killing is all part of the America’s history of movement and growth. Juggling his jar of dirt Bogue explains, “This country has long equated democracy with capitalism, and capitalism with God.” As women weep and children look shocked, Fuqua seems to rejoice in the conventionality of the tropes of melodrama. With evil revealed in the actions of one man and goodness placed in the hands of the passive folks who have seemingly done nothing, the storyline sets its engine in motion. Now the title can appear. Now we can get the list of stars that are to animate the movie.

Melodrama may be the defining mode for American cinema. And this opening, with the focus on a helpless town, plays on the long standing ways in which pathos has been tied to images of women and children crying. There is more though: as the scholar Linda Williams suggests, interracial relationships have often been at the foundation of cinematic melodrama.

Clear in most of the films of D.W. Griffith or Hollywood’s many fumbled attempts to reckon with the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, melodrama has relied on the protection of white innocence. Look to The Help or The Blind Side. This is where Fuqua’s film gets interesting, even if the script appears to have little to say about the contemporary moment.  Many shrewd critics and commenters have trashed this remake for its failure to adhere to the original plot entirely or for its inability to develop a new storyline. It seems a more worthwhile endeavor to try and understand what it means that The Magnificent Seven has been re-made in 2016 as a melodrama about Hollywood and diversity.

It makes sense to begin with the oft-quoted statement from Fuqua himself, in which he explained “For me, the event would be to see Denzel Washington on a horse.” Washington is a star and seeing him on a horse carries with it a unique cue of history. As the poet and black feminist scholar Elizabeth Alexander points out “we call him by his first name,” continuing to write that he is a man who is “post-Poitier, but impossible without Poitier.” Poitier starred in and directed the Western Buck and Preacher, but prior to this film Washington had never been in one. So here he is. Denzel. On a horse.

And that is pretty much what The Magnificent Seven gets right. The mustache that once led to memes, in this film is a sign of grace and coolness. Washington moves through this vision of the West with swift precision, never mis-stepping, never misfiring. As charismatic as any hero of the genre, but never as exaggerated as the re-configured cowboys of Blaxploitation, Sam Chisholm exists in a middle ground. He is exciting in his everyday status as an icon. Dressed in all black, under what appears to be a sweltering sun, Chisholm never seems to sweat. This is certainly not the American West of 1879. This is the world of Hollywood-remakes.

(l to r) Vincent D'Onofrio, Martin Sensmeier, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Ethan Hawke, Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Byung-hun Lee star in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Columbia Pictures' THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.
(l to r) Vincent D’Onofrio, Martin Sensmeier, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Ethan Hawke, Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Byung-hun Lee star in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Columbia Pictures’ THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.

Attention is rarely drawn to Washington’s blackness. His job, collecting the bodies (alive or dead) of those who have warrants out for their arrest, is a dangerous one. Yet it is rendered unremarkable, even in these years following the Civil War. However, as much as the movie might be sealed in the dream factory, its viewers are not. Perhaps the film’s most unsettling and subtle moment comes as the camera follows Washington from behind when he walks out of a saloon with his hands up after killing a wanted bartender.

The film oozes a kind of crisp, if cartoony violence but here the patience of the scene establishes a sense of dread as Chisholm holds his hands up, a gesture meant to signal surrender and corroborate his status as a bounty hunter. In the summer of 2016, two years following the rebellions in Ferguson, that gesture carries an especially powerful history. Whether or not Michael Brown had his hands up (a claim the Justice Department found was untrue) the country has still yet come to terms with the call “hands up don’t shoot” and the violence of white supremacy acknowledged in such a call. This fleeting moment is a poignant reminder of that. So The Magnificent Seven is not only Denzel on a horse.

However, violence is the real medium for the plot. In that regard, this remake has more in common with Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and its unceasing enactment of death than with its source material. Where John Sturges’ original The Magnificent Seven pushed aside differences among individuals to celebrate how a community could be built if everyone just acted a little less selfish, The Wild Bunch reveled in the incoherence and nihilism of loss.

Blood may not shoot across the screen but Fuqua’s re-make follows the exceptionally high body count of The Wild Bunch. Music creeps in to accentuate emotional moments of redemption while guns fire in rhythmic fashion, providing a syncopated score of weaponry in the film’s last hour. As a clinic on sound design and editing Fuqua’s crew is especially tight. Action scenes move quickly and even more impressively the quick pace is coherent. There is a tightness here that mirrors the clever planning of Chisholm and his team.

Peckinpah’s title might make more sense here as well as Fuqua’s vision of majestic men is a little less sincere. The seven individuals are less magnificent and less devoted to the male bonding that so defined the original. Instead they all try and balance different degrees of ruptured or unacknowledged pasts. Whatever the glue is that holds the men together, it is certainly not a generosity of spirit or goodwill. The team gets together for motivations which vary from personal (Chisholm has a stake in Bogue’s demise; the single-named Mexican gunslinger Vasquez has a warrant out and joins so as not to be brought in by Chisholm) to political (Red Harvest, played by Martin Sensmeier, is a Comanche artist and archer who seemingly joins to fight against the industrialized imperialism embodied by Bogue).

Some of these men (emphasis on men) are legends and some of them are emblems of their time. Goodnight Robicheaux’s (Ethan Hawke) history as a confederate soldier manifests itself in a sort of post-traumatic stress disorder where it becomes impossible for him to shoot at another person. He is joined by his friend (and lover?) Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), an Asian assassin. The Irish alcoholic Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt) is the first to join Chisholm and he is in it for the gold. And then there is the burly tracker Jack Horne, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, as some combination of Burl Ives and Orson Welles. If the other characters seem to fit into conventional slots of a multicultural cast of crusaders, D’Onofrio’s Horne feels like he is another movie, muttering high pitched commentary cast as worldly observation. With nothing to lose he joins the gang perhaps with the hope of reclaiming some past meaning.

What makes this crew unique is that they encapsulate the very anxieties and failures of the calls for diversity in Hollywood. Although an international, inter-racial gang is brought together the mission remains the same.  After all this is a rag tag team of seven very different individuals who give their lives to protect the small town values of a little community of white miners. It is no big surprise that the town is saved, if really only salvaged from complete destruction. It may be somewhat of a surprise, though, that the only three surviving members of the team are Chisholm, Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Red Harvest. Are these the three men to carry the future of magnificence?

The movie seems to avoid that kind of questioning as the final victory is transient: Chisholm’s desire for revenge is only half quenched and the town remains mostly as the ruins of what it once was. The narrative of Manifest Destiny reverberates and what incisive scholars call American settler-colonialism remains firmly in-tact. There are different character serving “justice” here, but it is in service of an imperial quest. And it is here where the film reflects the trouble with calls for diversity rather than a fundamental overhaul of the Hollywood system.

To highlight this reflection is not to dismiss the movie. Whatever different motivations drive the seven men, they ultimately come together not as a reconciled collective of friends fighting for a community but instead as a kind of corporate board where decisions are made and actions are followed through. Forget Bogue, he was a totalitarian who bribed police—this new crew is an international conglomerate run by a seven men from management. Kind of like a Hollywood studio. Chisholm moves as the chief executive officer while others contribute their specialty to propel the plan to success and please the shareholders (the townsfolk of Rose Creek). Red Harvest’s skill with a bow works in tandem with Billy Rocks adeptness with knives and Faraday’s penchant for dynamite. Some skills are needed and some folks are needed to be expendable.

The mission is the motive. The board has a plan and its very existence is reason to continue. So while the cast appears diverse, the politics of its members become inconsequential as the script attempts to blur any difference other than the single skill as a laborer, a skill which makes them an asset to begin with. Like a dull eraser taken to a handwritten note, the characters appear as smudged bundles of traits. Any emphasis on similarities between men leads to some peculiar and gross moments of humor where a racial stereotype or caricature is played for laughs in dialogue. Racist jokes are meant to become the substance for a friendly connection between Faraday and Vazquez. There might be diversity here, but the politics certainly aren’t radical.

Still, I find the film’s conclusion to be, in part, what makes The Magnificent Seven an intriguing film. Fuqua, Pizzolatto and Wenk are unable to fulfill the promises of reconciliation that the film hints at. But that might be because the film is itself a reflection on the failures of diversity as the only goal. There is an old rule of thumb that remakes and historical dramas are more about the present moment than the redrawn past. Like a well-engineered mass-produced Happy Meal toy everything works in The Magnificent Seven. But like that toy it only really seems interested in looking colorful.

Nicholas Forster is a writer and PhD Candidate in African American Studies and Film and Media Studies at Yale University. Follow him on Twitter at @nsforster.